News From Terre Haute, Indiana


November 17, 2007

Stephanie Salter: An idea the founding fathers believed in: Separation of church and state

TERRE HAUTE — Quick quiz.

How many times does the U.S. Constitution mention God?

How many times does it talk about the Bible?

In what sections does it address Christianity?

The answers: None, none and none.

As for religion, as physicist Ellery Schempp recently observed, the Constitution “mentions religion just twice, and both times the word ‘no’ is attached.”

I met Schempp last month in Madison, Wis., and listened with keen ears to his speech to the annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention. The national organization of state-and-church separationists honored him with its “Champion of the First Amendment” award.

(The group gave awards to several other folks, too, including best-selling author Christopher Hitchens and me. More on that another day, but everyone’s speech and information about the foundation are at

Schempp, now 66, is one of the most reasonable, sanguine and thoughtful people I’ve met in awhile. He is also an atheist, as were many of the 750 or so convention attendees. In addition to atheists there were agnostics, secularists, humanists, pagans and theists like me: people who practice a religious faith but do not want ours — or any religion — to be allowed to wreck one of the greatest things the United States has going for it.

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That sentence is in the First Amendment to the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights. The other reference to religion, as Schempp pointed out, is in Article VI, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

For an atheist, Schempp knows his Bible very well. (Come to think of it, he knows it better than many Christians I’ve run across.) He’s studied it along with the holy books of other faiths which, he likes to remind people, are viewed by the U.S. government as equally worthy of protection to exist.

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