COMMENTARY Separation in Rhode Island: Church from State and Fact from Fiction, 0414 RIBJ, 62 RI Bar J., No. 5, Pg. 21

AuthorPatrick T. Conley, Esq., Historian Laureate of Rhode Island.

COMMENTARY Separation in Rhode Island: Church from State and Fact from Fiction

Vol. 62 No. 5 Pg. 21

Rhode Island Bar Journal

April, 2014

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 March, 2014

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 Patrick T. Conley, Esq., Historian Laureate of Rhode Island.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Nearly everyone believes Rhode Island's famed colonial charter, whose 350th anniversary we celebrated in 2013, proclaimed religious liberty for the inhabitants of our micro-paradise and completely separated the church from the state. That belief is only a half-truth. Freedom of worship, or "soul liberty," as Roger Williams called it, and "full liberty in religious concernments" as Dr. John Clarke wrote it, has never been denied to Rhode Islanders by government. Nor was there ever an established (i.e., tax supported) religious sect herein, an inequality afflicting our sister colonies. These facts are great achievements to celebrate. They are Rhode Island's gifts to America and, indeed, the world.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0However, strict separation of church and state, or religion and government, is a different story. During the controversy over the Cranston West prayer banner, the Woonsocket military memorial, and the cross exhorting God to bless America placed on the median of Providence's Pleasant Valley Parkway, opponents claimed such religious displays are unique departures from Rhode Island's unbroken 350-year tradition of separation. Such assertions are not only wrong, they are ironic when one considers the following facts.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke sought separation, not to free civil society from religious influences and expressions of religious faith, but to present the state, as it did elsewhere and nearly everywhere, from interfering with a person's private religious belief. In secular America this intention has been disregarded and reversed over the past three generations.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Indicative of how strongly Williams felt about state domination of the church, this polemical theologian asserted in one burst of vituperation that such a condition would render the church, "the garden and spouse of Christ, a filthy dunghill and whore-house of rotten and stinking whores and hypocrites." Williams's pungent prose was referring to those contemporary rulers who imposed religious conformity on their subjects. For Williams, "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils" because it is productive of persecution and religious...

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