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The separation of church and state in the US

While contradictory in many respects, the principles of separation of church and state, cooperation between sacred and secular, religious equality in the treatment of religion, and the integration of religion and politics combine to provide unique but important contributions to American life. In the following excerpt from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, Derek H. Davis examines the relationship between law and religion in the United States.

The United States Supreme Court plays a significant role with respect to religious institutions and religious practice in America. The role of the court derives specifically from its authority to engage in judicial review, that is, its authority to invalidate legislation or executive actions that violate the Constitution. The court’s jurisprudence in the realm of religion has generally been constructed by interpreting the meaning of the First Amendment’s religion clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Overall, the court seems committed to at least four themes: separation of church and state, cooperation between sacred and secular activities in religion-based contexts, equality of government treatment among religions and religious persons, and integrating religion and politics. One must see these various themes as integrated into a much larger Supreme Court framework that seeks to set forth the contours of how government authority interfaces with religious practice in the United States.

The court’s decisions sometimes seem contradictory, even to the most ripened experts. But by examining many of the court’s decisions under these four themes, the court’s difficult task of balancing the religion clauses and giving them meaning becomes more apparent and their decisions more rational.

Apparent inconsistencies abound. How is it, for example, that students in public schools cannot have vocal prayers in their classrooms or at their football games, but the US Congress can have its own chaplains to lead it daily in prayer? Or why is it that the Ten Commandments cannot be regularly posted in public school classrooms, yet the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, both inside and out, features several displays of the Ten Commandments?

And how can a nation committed to the separation of church and state adopt a national motto that proclaims to the world, “In God We Trust?” On their face, these seemingly contradictory rules and practices might be bizarre. But understood in the broader, elaborate framework of Supreme Court decisions, examined through the grid of the four themes already mentioned, these apparent consistencies can be understood, even justified.

Obviously, the American tradition of separation of church and state does not mean that a separation of religion from government is required in all cases. So, while the phrase is too broad to embrace the whole system, it nevertheless does accurately describe an important part of the system.

 And how can a nation committed to the separation of church and state adopt a national motto that proclaims to the world, “In God We Trust?”

The US Supreme Court has frequently resorted to an examination of the eighteenth-century Founding Fathers’ writings to ascertain the relationship between religion and state that was intended to undergird the American social and political order. The court has tended to rely extensively on Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president, to determine much of the Founders’ “original intent.” In fact, the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” was first used in America by President Jefferson in 1802 as a shorthand explanation of the meaning he assigned to the religion clauses. This well-known phrase was enlisted by the US Supreme Court in 1947 as a useful metaphor in adjudicating religion clause disputes. The court thus acknowledges that separating church and state was fundamental to the Founders’ project.

“Separation of church and state” is therefore a legitimate concept in America, but it describes more an institutional separation than a strict separation. In other words, the Constitution requires that the institutions of church and state in American society not be interconnected, dependent upon, or functionally related to each other. The purpose of this requirement is to achieve mutual independence and autonomy for these institutions, based on the belief that they will function best if neither has authority over the other. Affected are the institutional bodies of religion, that is, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, and other bodies of organized religion, and the institutional bodies of governmental authority—state and federal governments, but also small local bodies such as school districts, police departments, city councils, utility districts, municipal courts, county commissions, and the like.

Consequently, churches and other houses of worship receive no direct governmental funding, nor are they required to pay income or property taxes. Government officials appoint no clergy; conversely, religious bodies appoint no government officials. Governments, even courts, are not allowed to settle church disputes that involve doctrinal issues. And religious bodies, unlike the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, have no authority to dictate law or public policy, although they might try since they are not excluded as participants in political discourse.

The institutional separation of church and state is observed most frequently, and most controversially, in judicial decisions that limit religious activity in the public schools. The Supreme Court’s decisions limiting schools’ ability to entertain vocal prayers and scripture readings, to post the Ten Commandments and other religious texts, or to advance a particular religious worldview are intended to protect the sacred domain of religion from state interference. The High Court often stresses that children are highly impressionable, and that while it might be permissible for the state to occasionally accommodate religious observances in higher public education settings or in legislative assemblies, it is important to leave the religious training of young children generally to parents, religious bodies, and other private organizations. Thus it might be said that a “high” wall of separation is observed in the nation’s public K–12 schools.

Yet it is important to remember that in the public school context, it is the precepts and practices of institutionalized religion that are prohibited from being embraced or proscribed. Courses that teach comparative religion, the historical or literary aspects of religion, or religion in a secular and objective way without any attempt to inculcate faith, are permitted, and even encouraged. As Justice Tom Clark wrote in Abington v. Schempp, “one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization … [S]tudy of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education [does not violate] the First Amendment.”

Featured image credit: Kendal Parish Church, by Michael D Beckwith. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Dave137

    My taxes should not siphon into any religious organization or activity, especially when churches, synagogues, and mosques pay nothing themselves in terms of property taxes, etc.

    Keep thy religion to thyself.

  2. Tim Gillespie

    The founding fathers certainly had no problem with prayer in schools. While the avoidance of establishing a national church, as had been done in England, was surely their intent, I don’t believe their actions indicated a desire to separate the state from God, or vice versa.

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