When involved with social policy, a consideration that needs to be made is how we distinguish right and wrong. After all, what is immoral for one person may be moral for another. Forcing someone to follow another’s morality seems immoral in itself. On the other hand, we must have laws against things like murder, stealing, and abuse. So how do we, as a country, balance our laws with a changing or inconsistent morality?
First, of all, what is morality? According to Merriam Webster, it’s a system of moral principles, or “right and wrong” principles. Thus, it is very easy to see why different people, maybe even who live directly adjacent to one another, may have vastly different moral standards from their neighbor. For example, as a Christian I believe that stealing is wrong, since it violates the “Love thy neighbor” command given to all Christ’s followers. Yet others, maybe those who manipulate stocks unfairly, either don’t care that stealing is wrong or believe that their version of stealing is not wrong. They justify their decisions under their morality. The response is that we have laws against illegal profits.
In that case, how do we determine what is stealing? Robin Hood, one of my favorite childhood movies, consisted of a team of men stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Hailed as a hero under oppressive taxes, Robin Hood is praised for stealing. Do circumstances play a role in what defines stealing? Are taxes a form of stealing? How do we determine the difference between stealing and being fair? The answer from our forefathers was no taxation without representation. Arguably, taxes are a fee of protection against threats. Every American has a right to elect an official, or vote themselves, to raise or lower the taxes enact on citizens. Some may believe a fair tax is a percentage of all incomes, and others may believe that it is fair to impose higher taxes on those with more income. However, we all elect legislators to make tax laws, and those representatives decide what is fair.
In that case, there must be some element of individual influence on laws in order to justify legal social policies. To my belief, this is where Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State” seems to get fuzzy. How are we to determine the morality of laws when we cannot use a religiously derived morality? Furthermore, we have freedom of religion under the first Amendment, so we have “free exercise” of that morality under the US Constitution. Does that mean we can enact laws against religions with which we disagree? In Wisconsin, a young child died of diabetic ketoacidosis due to her parent’s unwillingness to treat the condition medically. The judge wrote that “the free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief but not necessarily conduct.” Thus, we find that some morals supercede the right to free exercise of religion. Logically, a freedom to practice religion must be limited, because if not, any criminal could claim a religious exemption from their crime.
We must then return to square one. How do the morals of one people supercede the morals of another? It cannot be majority rules, as seen in the majority Puritan towns who persecuted Quakers for being Quakers. Stubborn as they were, the Quakers continued to travel to Massachusetts under harsh persecution until enough diversity was established to reduce Puritan majority. Although occurring in modern day America, at the time the Puritans were under English rule, and thus this was the only way to disrupt the discrimination. In more recent times, under American laws, the Supreme Court ruled against Wisconsin’s mandatory school law, granting the Amish the right to forgo education.
As it seems from the previous cases listed, there is some sort of moral code that Americans agree on, such that the life of a child is valued over freedom to practice religion. However, when is a child’s life in danger? How do we legislate between a negligent parent and a religiously faithful one? The answer lies in the due process of law. The jury, under influence of the judge and lawyers of the case, have to decide the particulars of the matter. Under due process, either side can appeal, until the case reaches the Supreme Court. Using the Constitution, those nine judges make moral decisions for the entire nation.
Then, do I personally have a right to vote my conscience on any law. Absolutely! However, that law, under the judicial system, may be overturned under the federal Constitution. Separation of church and state does not mean your morality is barred from the voting booths, it simply means that it can be challenged and overturned by the judiciary branch. We can legislate our beliefs, as strange and foreign to outsiders as they may be, and our fellow citizens, as jurors, judges or justices will decide the morality of that law. A human-based approach, with all its associated faults and religious attributes, is the only way that the morality of laws can be decided in a nation of diverse individuals.
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