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Don't tear down that wall!

A great many Americans no longer believe in the separation of Church and State, and indeed deny it is a principle found in the Constitution. Yet the wording of the First Amendment is quite clear, and its importance to the founders is underlined by its being first. Certainly it was clear to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

That's why it's alarming to see so many politicians proposing to tear down that wall. It's most evident in the eagerness of states to permit the teaching of Creationism (in the guise of Intelligent Design) in public schools, despite the ruling of a Pennsylvania U. S. District Court that "the overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

The other high-profile test of separation of Church and State comes in the attempt to legislate birth control, abortion and other matters pertaining to birth. We now have a likely Republican ticket which would ban all funds for Planned Parenthood, outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and allow employers to deny women access to cancer screenings and birth control. The likely vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, would go even farther. He is co-sponsor of a bill before the house that would criminalize in-vitro fertilization.

These positions reflect the religious teachings of the churches of the candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. The Catholic Church states that "no person and no couple has a right to a child," and that in-vitro fertilization is morally sinful. The Mormons believe: "The Church strongly discourages in vitro fertilization using semen from anyone but the husband or an egg from anyone but the wife. However, this is a personal matter that ultimately must be left to the judgment of the husband and wife. Responsibility for the decision rests solely upon them." It adds that single women are forbidden to use in vitro, and I assume that men are therefore forbidden to contribute sperm.

I do not propose to discuss the issues of abortion, birth control and in vitro fertilization. I'm more concerned with those who would pass laws enforcing their religious beliefs. They apparently see no conflict between the laws they propose and the separation of Church and State.

What the First Amendment provides is that each and every American is entitled to follow the teachings of the church of their choice, or for that matter no church at all. What if your beliefs, or your church, permit abortion or in vitro fertilization? Are you now to become a criminal? The problem with such laws is that they would legislate the personal religious beliefs of the candidates.

The law is well-advised to stand free of such beliefs. Although the Catholic Church forbids the use of contraception, a majority of Americans use it. It has been incorrectly stated that even 98% of Catholic women use it; although the actual figures are open to interpretation.

The use of in vitro fertilization has grown more popular, as evidenced by the fact that three of Romney's grandchildren were conceived in that way. This was not in violation of Mormon law, but it would be outlawed by Ryan's bill--which might inspire an interesting conversation between the two men about the principle of legislating private beliefs. I have no idea if the children were parented according to Mormon recommendations. It's none of my business. Still less is it the business of Ryan's proposed bill.

And make no mistake: it is a principle we're discussing here. If I believe my church's teachings are correct, my obvious course should be to convert you to my church, not pass laws forcing you to follow its beliefs. Isn't that obvious? I find it frightening that candidates who may become responsible for enforcing the Constitution have such a careless understanding of it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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