Separating church and state in Rhode Island

Print More

Lincoln Chafee, whose forebears moved to Rhode Island in Roger Williams’ day, made returning to the ideals of the Ocean State’s famous founder the keystone of his gubernatorial inaugural address Jan. 4.

Today, I ask all Rhode Islanders to join me in boldly reaffirming Roger
Williams’ vision of a “civil state,” a vibrant, diverse community that
is free of political, cultural and ethnic division. For if we rekindle
the vision that created our heritage, there is nothing this state and
her people cannot achieve.

Williams was in fact a pretty grouchy guy who wouldn’t join any church that would have him as a member. But he is rightly famous for his insistence on liberty of conscience–a stance that put him profoundly at odds with his Puritan neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut. His vision of a civil state had to do with keeping the government from pushing religion on the citizenry in any way, shape, or form. It was, he wrote, contrary to Jesus’ teaching “for the civil state to impose upon the souls of the people a religion, a
worship, a ministry, oaths (in religious and civil affairs), tithes,
times, days, marryings, and buryings in holy ground.”

Chafee chose to keep faith with this vision by foregoing a public prayer service on inauguration morning–out of “respect [for] the separation of church and state,” as his spokesman, Michael Trainor, put it in December. That explanation caught the attention of the Catholic bishop of Providence, Thomas J. Tobin, who took to his diocesan newspaper to denounce such church-state separationism. “By now,” he wrote, “you should be aware that the exact phrase “separation of church
and state” isn’t found anywhere in our nation’s Constitution but rather
was a principle that evolved later on.”

Uh, no. Church-state separation was exactly was Roger Williams pioneered in Rhode Island in the 17th century. Long before Thomas Jefferson, Williams famously used the phrase “wall of separation” to stress the importance of keeping the “garden of the church” apart from the “wilderness of the world.”

Tobin, a Pittsburgh native who has only been in Rhode Island since being elevated to the Providence see in 2005, seems to have spent more time reading his colleague Charles Chaput than pondering the religious history of his adopted state. If there’s any separation he’d like, it’s keeping the garden of his diocese apart from the wilderness of Massachusetts and Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is the law of the land.

Good luck with that, bish. In his address, Chafee expressed the hope that Rhode Island would “catch up to her New England neighbors and pass a bill to establish marriage equality.” On Jan. 6 a bill was introduced in the state legislature to do just that. The most recent polling indicates that 59 percent of Rhode Islanders favor same-sex marriage, including 63 percent of Catholics when told that this wouldn’t infringe on their church’s right to marry whom it chooses.

Tobin has protested the initiative as “morally wrong and detrimental to the well-being of our State.” Whatever Roger Williams might have thought of his own civil state instituting same-sex marriage, sure it is that he would have rejoiced in its not doing the bishop’s bidding.