GOP congressional candidate questions legal separation of church and state

  • Bill Foster, left, and Rick Laib.

    Bill Foster, left, and Rick Laib.

 
 
Updated 9/29/2020 2:42 PM

Despite significant legal precedents and a widespread acceptance by historians, educators, public officials and civilians, congressional candidate Rick Laib doesn't believe there's a constitutional separation of church and state.

The subject arose in a discussion with the Daily Herald after Laib -- a Will County sheriff's deputy from Joliet who's challenging Democratic incumbent Bill Foster of Naperville in Illinois' 11th District -- was asked about systemic racism and the ongoing protests across the U.S.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Virtue and morality can be taught far easier when we are free to teach where virtue and morality are objectively anchored," said Laib, an evangelical Protestant. "Even allowing instruction of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms would go a long way in terms of reforming the police and fighting racism."

U.S. courts long have ruled promoting specific religious views in public schools is unconstitutional. That means the Bible may be part of a curriculum only for its historical, cultural or literary value -- not its religious merits.

When asked to explain his stance, Laib said, "I do not believe there is a constitutional separation of church and state."

In a subsequent blog entry on his campaign website, Laib said the clause in the First Amendment that addresses religion only applies to Congress, not all government agencies.

"The Establishment Clause only lists one body of government: Congress," Laib said. "The Founding Fathers understood the distinctions between federal, state and local politics."

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The Foster campaign declined to comment on Laib's position.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said Laib simply is wrong.

"Thank goodness that people broadly don't believe this and understand it's not true," Yohnka said.

The first clause in the Bill of Rights -- dubbed the Establishment Clause -- says Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't appear in the Constitution. A variation of the term was coined by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson in a letter written early in his presidency.

The phrase's absence stands out to Laib.

"To claim that an action is in violation of a phrase that is not found in the grounding document used to evaluate the violation is problematic," Laib said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Although U.S. courts often have invoked the separation phrase in rulings designed to keep government and religion mutually exclusive, Laib said "we have no good reason to believe that was the original intention of the First Amendment."

Laib, who has masters degrees in theology, said restrictions placed on religious practice and observance in the U.S. "have helped usher in increasing wickedness in our society."

"It would benefit both our culture and our government to renew the cooperative relationship between the church and state," Laib said.

The courts disagree. The U.S. Supreme Court has even deemed displays of the Ten Commandments on public classroom walls unconstitutional.

"Teaching the Ten Commandments as moral guidance would be an even clearer violation," said Maggie Garrett, the vice president for public policy for a nonprofit group called the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Children have clear religious-freedom rights to attend public schools that are welcoming and inclusive, regardless of students' religious beliefs. And parents shouldn't have to worry that their children are being given religious instruction in a public school."

Garrett called the separation of church and state a fundamental constitutional principle.

"It is the linchpin of religious freedom for all," Garrett said. "It guarantees us all the right to believe, or not, as we choose, as long as we don't harm others or impose our beliefs on them."

Both Garrett and the ACLU's Yohnka noted that the Supreme Court repeatedly has affirmed that the Establishment Clause applies to all levels of government, as does the rest of the Constitution.

The 11th District includes parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will counties. Election Day is Nov. 3.

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