Constitutional shortcomings at CNU

An explanation of our separation of Church and State, or lack thereof

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This is the text of the First Amendment known as the Establishment Clause, which is often referred to with the term “the Separation of Church and State.” The reason I bring this up is because I deeply question if this university, Christopher Newport, a state funded school, upholds this separation, and I’m not alone. 

This school, from the mandatory meetings where a belief in a Christian interpretation of God is told to be the best, to the building of what’s practically a cathedral on campus, to details revealed in an interview with an anonymous teacher, rides the line unbelievably closely, often leaving people feeling like it has been crossed many times over.

In the early 1970’s, the Supreme Court of the United States heard a case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, where R. I. was trying to pass a bill which would have funded private institutions as long as their money did not go to specifically religious teachings. The Supreme Court, under Warren Burger, decided that this was, in fact, a breach of the separation of Church and State because it was impossible to decide what things in specific the state was funding, meaning it was impossible to prove if they were in fact supporting religion with the state’s dollar. 

This ruling was similar to one stating that the inclusion of religion in state schools ought to be avoided at all costs, something CNU seems to not have caught on to. For instance, at Honors Convocation – a mandatory event for all incoming freshmen – the Provost, David Doughty, rode the line in a way that was frustrating, if not clever. He quoted “the Jewish teacher Jesus Christ,” and then later in the same speech he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as he quoted Jesus. These were both simply ways of inserting scripture while attempting to curb suspicion. President Paul Trible was a little less furtive in his speech though, speaking highly of the value of having faith in God and how foundational it was to our community here at CNU. This, of course, was not the only time Paul Trible spoke of his value in God. 

At the President’s Speakers Series, our first speaker of the year was Trible himself. In an hour-long speech, he managed to get in five mentions of his faith in God, one of which being a several minute story about how his wife, Rosemary, worked with Mother Theresa, and how her morals were shaped by that time. He went on to say that those Christian morals became foundational to his rebuilding of CNU.

On the topic of rebuilding CNU, one of these buildings funded by a state institution is a chapel on campus where service is held at noon every Sunday. An argument may be presented that it is non-denominational, with services for many religions being held there, but this argument lacks an understanding of the fundamental idea of the separation between Church and State. Even if it is not strictly Christianity, it is religion, and the separation is not between “Christian Church” and State, it is between all Churches and the State. This is still a use of state property to propagate and further religious actions.

Another, smaller, example would be the statue of Saint Fancis of Assisi outside the DSU. In this statue, he is shown as he is recognized by the Catholic Church, with animal companions. Saint Francis is special because he is one of the few people to ever be recognized by the Church as having officially accepted stigmata. This statue is a work directly inspired by Christian scripture and stories designed for their glorification and prevalence.

This was actually one of the points made by a teacher I talked with who wished to remain anonymous in this publication. When asked if he’d like to speak on the separation of Church and State he immediately responded, “Oh, you mean how there is none?” He went on to talk about how there were prayers before school faculty meetings, notably a worse offense. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2018 a case was heard by the 9th district wherein it was decided that School Board meetings were constitutionally not allowed to start with a prayer. Prayer was also outlawed in state schools and state school sponsored events in the Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale. Engel laid out that prayer at any school event was unconstitutional, which ought to include staff meetings. 

I’ll be honest, I get why it isn’t talked about here. It seems like every person you meet is somehow more devout than the last. 

Another of my teachers stated matter-of-factly that he has always asked his students about their relative strength of faith, telling us that the percentage at CNU has, every single time, been higher than that of the students from his time working at the Vatican. Another time this idea of overbearing Christianity was shown was at PLP Orientation during an activity where we were told to stand if a statement applied to us or sit if it didn’t. Several of the questions asked were about religion, which I find deeply morally objectionable. 

When they asked about Christianity, nearly all the students in the room stood; when they asked about Agnosticism, less than ten stood; when they asked about Atheism, five stood; for Islam, one girl stood alone. When they asked about Judaism, one boy about five or six seats to my left started to stand, saw he was alone, and remained seated. 

It is unacceptable to force students to identify themselves and make them stand apart for their religious beliefs, but as CNU we did it. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just some God-hating Atheist who believes that we should abandon religion. 

I just recognize that the separation of Church and State as laid out by the First Amendment is one of the most important pieces of the Constitution, and that as we start to become lenient and dismissive of seemingly large breaches, we begin endangering foundational American ideals.

~Mark Trimbleton, Staff Writer~

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