Separation of Church and State

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A brief history of the phrase, “Separation of Church and State.” Many are surprised to find that it is not in the Constitution of the United States.

The phrase, “A wall of separation between church and state” is a hotly debated issue across America. It refers to the First Amendment of the United State Constitution, which, ironically, does not contain that phrase, nor is it anywhere throughout the document.

The Establishment Clause – It Does Not Say “Separation of Church and State”

The First Amendment, with regards to religion, simply states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”. It clearly forbids the government from influencing religion, but says nothing about religion influencing government. How, then, has the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” become such a contested topic?

History of Church and State Before the Constitution

In 1767, three members Baptist preachers were arrested for preaching their faith. A group of activists emerged, including Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. The end result was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was included in the Virginia Constitution, and states, in part, “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Although most colonies, and later states, had state religions, this was the basis for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

History of Church and State After the Constitution

1802, Baptists in Connecticut began to become concerned that Congress would enact a National religion. They wrote Thomas Jefferson, who responded in what is now known as the Danbury Letter, as follows: “. . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Again, the intent is clear – their legislature should not interfere with religion, not the other way around.

Supreme Court Justice Stevens on Church and State

In modern times, separation has been used to prohibit public prayer, public displays such as nativity scenes, and even high school baccalaureate ceremonies. John Paul Stevens, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, agrees with separation to this degree.

In Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (June 27, 2005), Justice Stevens was opposed to a Texas display of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds. He says, “The profoundly sacred message embodied by the text inscribed on the Texas monument is emphasized by the especially large letters that identify its author: “I AM the LORD they God.’ It commands present worship of Him and no other deity.”

Justice Stevens goes on to say, “The Establishment Clause, if nothing else, forbids government from ‘specifying details upon which men and women who believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Creator and Rule of the world are known to differ’.”

Supreme Court Justice Scalia on Church and State

Antonin Scalia, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, has a different view. In McCreary County, et al., v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, et al., 545 U.S. 844 (June 27, 2005), after citing much history, he states: “With all of this reality (and much more) staring it in the face, how can the Court possibly assert that ‘the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between . . . religion and nonreligion . . . “

With respect to a display of the Ten Commandments specifically, Justice Scalia says, “When the Ten Commandments appear alongside other documents of secular significance in a display devoted to the foundations of American law and government, the context communicates that the Ten Commandments are included, not to teach their binding nature as a religious text, but to show their unique contribution to the development of the legal system.”

There is clearly a trend back to the middle on the issue of ‘Separation of Church and State.’ While no one wants the government telling which faith to practice, most Americans are tolerant of students reading independent scriptures in school, and prayers before athletic events. It seems the pendulum has swung to the extreme and is coming back to center.