A Little Clarification on Separation of Church and State

Right up front, let me say that this post is not intended to stir a debate about religion, forms of religion, or which religion is the best. My personal beliefs are that everyone is entitled to believe, or not believe, and one right does not trump another.

That said, I do want to talk about the separation of church and state. People who want to remove all mention of a god or higher power from schools, public buildings, government and society in general use the First Amendment to the Constitution as their rallying point. But if you read that amendment carefully, you will note that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear. The amendment prohibits “an establishment of religion.”  That means no national mandated or tax supported church.

At the time the amendment was written, most of the states had their own official churches and the federal government was not to impose a national official church, like England has the Church of England. Later, the states did away with official state churches, thus establishing a true freedom of religion.

If only we could all honor that.

6 thoughts on “A Little Clarification on Separation of Church and State”

  1. Well-put Maryann. When I scheduled appearances for a Christian music and drama group, I had to get past fair board members afraid to put state money toward a Christian group. They relented when I explained that gospel music is about as American as it gets.

    The separation of church and state was meant to protect the individual worshipper from the intrusion of government, not the other way around.

  2. The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the underlying principle of the First Amendment and the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution. That the phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, only to those who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and later learned they were mistaken. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to describe one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    When discussing separation of church and state, it is critical to distinguish between the “public square” and “government.” The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical. Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer summarizing the current law of separation of church and state–as it is actually applied by the courts, which contrast with how it is sometimes portrayed in the media and blogosphere. http://www.adl.org/religious_freedom/WFU-Divinity-Joint-Statement.pdf

    The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

  3. Yet courts are upholding the faulty interpretation without regard for the rights of a huge segment of the population. It’s appalling.

    I’ve been meaning to order one of the pocket size copies of the Constitution from The Heritage Foundation for some time so I can carry it in my purse. Your post just prompted me to get the job done.

  4. Doug, what you said about teachers effectively being the government when they’re in the classroom is an interesting observation. It’s a great argument for private schools and home schooling. 🙂

  5. Doug. Thank you for the lesson on the First Amendment and what it means. So glad that you contributed that for those who are interested and perhaps did not know all those details.

    Patricia, I have one of those pocket-sized copies of the Constitution and it is a great quick reference.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top