Last November, Catholic Women at Work and the Moss Program for Christian Social Thought and Management in the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought co-sponsored a public lecture by Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer on the topic of the separation of church and state.

Secretary Kiffmeyer is a woman of deep faith who has made no secret of it in her public life and has given talks on this subject to many community groups in the state. She is on a self-proclaimed mission to make clear that the so-called “separation of church and state” is a formulation that came only later in American history and in a completely separate context from the writing of the Constitution. It is found for the first time, she said, in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, and specifically with regard to the issue of slavery.

She began her comments to the group gathered on St. Thomas’ Minneapolis campus that evening the same way she always does, by asking where in the Constitution does it state that there is to be a distinct and formal separation of church and state? The answer, of course, is “nowhere.”

Kiffmeyer pointed to the text of the First Amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” and went on to provide her interpretation of that statement. The first phrase clearly limits the power of Congress to establish any sort of state religion; the confusion surrounds the meaning of the second phrase. If one is to be free to exercise one’s religion, said Kiffemeyer, it cannot be limited to attendance at weekly worship services. Such an exercise is only free if it can be continued during all of one’s activities, throughout the week – and throughout one’s life. “We cannot separate ourselves so completely or so easily,” she pointed out. And we cannot be required to. We bring all of who we are into the workplace, or wherever our life’s vocation takes us.

According to Kiffmeyer, the “free exercise of religion” can only be understood to refer to our right to think, act, and make decisions in a way that reflects our most deeply held beliefs and values. The attempt in our country to draw a clear dividing line between religion and the public square, and our common political life is not only unsupported in the Constitution, it is an abridgment of the very freedom the Constitution protects. And, at least on a personal level, conforming to such a principle would be humanly impossible.

Kiffmeyer’s remarks are extremely important for those interested in the possibility of bringing their faith into the workplace. While she cautioned against unwelcome proselytizing and reminded us of the need to respect the religious traditions of all, she made it quite clear that the Constitution protects our right to live and witness to our faith in every facet of our lives.

Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi, echoed more recently by Mother Teresa, said it best: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

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