Just read the letters to the editor in any local newspaper. Stories about religion or guns - subjects of the first and second amendments (the framers got right to the point) - will always produce emotional responses.
In one recent flurry, a letter writer responded to another, who supported the posting of the Ten Command-ments on public property, that her apparent inability to interpret the lines in a manner consistent with his own was "ignorant," but then tried to soften the blow by pointing out in parentheses "(not stupid)." That was, of course, the unedited version.
And it's not at all unusual to see language just as strong from the other side.
The "correct" interpretation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion is by necessity the one written most recently by a U.S. Supreme Court majority, which means that what is "correct" is subject to change. Hence the attention given at election time to a president's potential appointments to the high court.
We all seem to agree that the Constitution prevents Congress from declaring an official religion. It's when we get beyond such a declaration that we part.
Some think that the reference to Congress is all-encompassing, that these 10 words justify a doctrine of "separation of church and state" that permeates anything that smells like a public entity - federal, state or local - or even any agency that has an attachment to public money. They believe that nothing church has any business on the same property, or uttered in the same breath, as anything state.
Others push the literal boundaries. The framers wrote "Congress shall make no law," and that's all they meant, they will say, and the words "separation of church and state" appear nowhere in the Constitution. They also argue that the phrase which follows, - "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" - is often violated when limits are placed on those who offer a religious message, even if they have one foot on government property and one foot off.
It's fair to say that somewhere between these two extremes is a place that Alexander Hamilton and company imagined when they put their signatures on what was considered then and now - by many - a sacred document.
But the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause pose clear contradictions, and bringing them to that place on a case-by-case basis can be excruciating, even impossible. A narrow interpretation for one pushes to the limit a broad interpretation of the other.
The Supreme Court first faced this task in 1947, which doesn't seem that long ago.
The justices then discussed an issue involving parochial schools and school buses.
Since then the court has dealt with school prayer more than once, and with the Ten Commandment controversies more recently. They are responding to our debate.
When the debate is healthy, it brings to the fore the best of our system's characteristics. We push and pull until we arrive at something, if not mutually acceptable, at least understandable. We continue with the knowledge that there is the possibility of change for those who remain dissatisfied. And we elevate the debate - publicly.
Unfortunately, we take that flexibility for granted.