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Why is separation of church and state important?

4 Answer(s) Available
Answer # 1 #

Frank Ravitch, professor of law and Walter H. Stowers Chair of Law and Religion at the Michigan State University College of Law, speaks about the separation of church and state and how the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade affects that separation. Ravitch discusses the impact the court justices have had as they overturned a variety of precedents, and how this has affected the world’s view of the court’s decision-making. Finally, he elaborates on how this could continue to change moving forward.

What is the separation of church and state?

Separation of church and state refers to the attempt to keep government from influencing religion and religion from influencing government to the greatest extent possible — given the complexities of both.

What can you tell us about the history of the separation of church and state?

There are two historical views of separation. One is the Jeffersonian view, which is that separation protects government from undue influence by religion. The other view is one that a lot of people associate with Roger Williams, which is that separation protects religion from the government.

In addition to these historical views, there’s another view of separation, one that I've written about quite a bit: It’s the idea of separation being a mechanism for protecting religious pluralism. There are many religions in America, and many separate sects within those religions. Separation helps to prevent government from promoting one religion or one sect over the others. That really helps protect religious pluralism so that government can't impose one religion on everyone.

How has the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade challenged this?

This is the first time in modern American history where the court has taken a fundamental right away from people. The court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade means 50 years of precedent has been overturned. I think it's very easy to see that the court is favoring social conservatives, whether intentionally or not, at the expense of many other Americans. I don't think it's a reach to say this is probably the most activist court in modern American history.

What are the long-term impacts of blurring the lines between church and state?

When you overturn precedents that people have come to rely on — particularly fundamental precedents like Roe v. Wade, and a lot of the establishment clause doctrine that was overturned — the court loses credibility.

If there was any doubt about the court being in some ways a political institution, that doubt is pretty much gone.

I think there are three things we're going to see as a result of the court’s action. First, trust in the court is going to continue to decrease. Second is that the culture wars are going to heat up even more if that's even possible. Third, religious minorities and women are going to be harmed by this.

I think what the court's done recently could lead to court packing. Court packing is the act of increasing the number of judges or justices to change the ideological makeup of the court. The problem with court packing is that it invites even more packing as congressional and presidential power shifts between opposing political parties, with each determined to establish majority justice support for its preferred ideology. And that sort of rapid ideological see-sawing would be even worse for public trust in the court in the long run.

smxsor Chavada
Answer # 2 #

Separation helps to prevent government from promoting one religion or one sect over the others. That really helps protect religious pluralism so that government can't impose one religion on everyone.

Micheal iidf Nashid
Answer # 3 #

The first clause in the Bill of Rights states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

For approximately the first 150 years of the country’s existence, there was little debate over the meaning of this clause in the Constitution. As the citizenry became more diverse, however, challenges arose to existing laws and practices, and eventually, the Supreme Court was called upon to determine the meaning of the establishment clause.

Though not explicitly stated in the First Amendment, the clause is often interpreted to mean that the Constitution requires the separation of church and state.

Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was the first public official to use this metaphor. He opined that an authentic Christian church would be possible only if there was “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “the garden of the church.” Williams believed that any government involvement in the church would corrupt the church.

The most famous use of the metaphor was by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. In it, Jefferson declared that when the American people adopted the establishment clause they built a “wall of separation between the church and state.”

Jefferson had earlier witnessed the turmoil of the American colonists as they struggled to combine governance with religious expression. Some colonies experimented with religious freedom while others strongly supported an established church.

One of the decisive battlegrounds for disestablishment was Jefferson’s colony of Virginia, where the Anglican Church had long been the established church.

Both Jefferson and fellow Virginian James Madison felt that state support for a particular religion or for any religion was improper. They argued that compelling citizens to support through taxation a faith they did not follow violated their natural right to religious liberty. The two were aided in their fight for disestablishment by the Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and other “dissenting” faiths of Anglican Virginia.

During the debates surrounding both its writing and its ratification, many religious groups feared that the Constitution offered an insufficient guarantee of the civil and religious rights of citizens. To help win ratification, Madison proposed a bill of rights that would include religious liberty.

As presidents, though, both Jefferson and Madison could be accused of mixing religion and government. Madison issued proclamations of religious fasting and thanksgivings while Jefferson signed treaties that sent religious ministers to the Native Americans. And from its inception, the Supreme Court has opened each of its sessions with the cry “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

It was not until after World War II that the Court interpreted the meaning of the establishment clause.

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court held that the establishment clause is one of the liberties protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, making it applicable to state laws and local ordinances. Since then the Court has attempted to discern the precise nature of the separation of church and state.

In 1971 the Court considered the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania statute that provided financial support to nonpublic schools for teacher salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials for secular subjects and a Rhode Island statute that provided direct supplemental salary payments to teachers in nonpublic elementary schools.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court established a three-pronged test for laws dealing with religious establishment. To be constitutional a statute must have “a secular legislative purpose,” it must have principal effects that neither advance nor inhibit religion, and it must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Twenty-six years later the Court modified the Lemon test in Agostini v. Felton (1997) by combining the last two elements, leaving a “purpose” prong and a modified “effects” prong.

In County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union (1989), a group of justices led by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in his dissent developed a coercion test: the government does not violate the establishment clause unless it provides direct aid to religion in a way that would tend to establish a state church or involve citizens in religion against their will.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor proposed an endorsement test that asks whether a particular government action amounts to an endorsement of religion.

In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), O’Connor noted that the establishment clause prohibits the government from making adherence to a religion relevant to a person’s standing in the political community. Her fundamental concern was whether government action conveyed a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders. The endorsement test is often invoked in religious display cases.

In McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union (2005), the Court ruled that the display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courtrooms was unconstitutional but refused in the companion case, Van Orden v. Perry (2005), to require the removal of a long-standing monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.

Questions involving appropriate use of government funds are increasingly subject to the neutrality test, which requires the government to treat religious groups the same as it would any other similarly situated group.

In a test of Ohio’s school voucher program, the Court held 5-4 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that Ohio’s program is part of the state’s general, neutral undertaking to provide educational opportunities to children and does not violate the establishment clause. In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that the “Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion.”

More recently, in 2022, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Carson v. Makin that Maine could not exclude families who send their children to religious schools from its state-funded tuition reimbursement program. The program helped children who live in rural areas without public schools nearby, but said the tuition could not be used for religious schools. The court, in a ruling written by Justice John Roberts Jr., said that the policy violated the parents' right to freely exercise their religion and that a public benefit that flowed to a religious school based on a parent's choice did not "offend" the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Adriaan Braschi
Answer # 4 #

We are also told that we “should not mix religion and politics.” Again, this saying has a powerful truth: that when religion is used for political purposes, it empties religion of its eternal meaning and becomes just one more cynical method of acquiring power.

But there is also a disclaimer hidden in that phrase: that sometimes when people say “Don’t mix religion and politics,” they actually mean “Don’t bring your faith into the public square where I can see it.” In other words, hide your faith outside of your place of worship because we have a “separation of church and state.” Separation of church and state is too important a concept to be misused — especially not as a tool for silencing opposing views. As a matter of fact, on National Religious Freedom Day, it just might be as important as ever to consider the true meaning of church/state separation and religious freedom.

Congress’s 1992 resolution that made Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day — a designation reaffirmed by every President since — was based on the anniversary of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, originally authored by Thomas Jefferson. This act inspired and shaped the guarantees of religious liberty eventually found in the First Amendment.

The text of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom gives great insight into our nation’s First Amendment right. It reads: “… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced … 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.”

In short, the act affirmed what we should recognize in every era: the right to practice any faith, or to have no faith, is a foundational freedom for all Americans. This right is also behind what Jefferson meant when he spoke of a “wall of separation” between the church and the state.

Jefferson’s famous phrase came in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. The Baptists were worried about the freedom to practice their faith, writing to Jefferson that “what religious privileges we enjoy, we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights,” which is “inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Jefferson wrote back that religious liberty, free from state tampering, would be a key part of the American vision. The Constitution, he wrote, would “restore to man all his natural rights.” In this same letter, Jefferson explained the intent of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This, he said, built a “wall of separation of church and state.”

Jefferson was not suggesting that religious people or religious motivations should be exiled from public debate. As a matter of fact, the letter was from a religious people appealing to an elected official for their rights — an elected official who, by the way, attended church services during his administration inside the United States Capitol.

In its day, a constitutional prohibition that the state would not establish or restrain personal faith was truly revolutionary. Sadly, in many countries today, religious freedom is still revolutionary. America has the obligation to live this truth and demonstrate the depth of this powerful human right.

Unlike many places in the world, our government is not prohibited from referencing or accommodating religion, nor is the government compelled to scrub all religious references from the public square. Rather, the First Amendment ensures both that the government does not show preference to a certain religion and that the government does not take away an individual’s ability to exercise religion. In other words, the church should not rule over the state, and the state cannot rule over the church. Religion is too important to be a government program or a political pageant.

Thankfully, the Courts have affirmed this time and time again.

In 2014, the Supreme Court held in Town of Greece v. Galloway that “it is an elemental First Amendment principle that government may not coerce its citizens to support or participate in any religion or its exercise.”

In the recent Trinity Lutheran case, the Court held “that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion… The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

These cases not only explain the religion clauses of the First Amendment, but they also affirm the separation of church and state. In Town of Greece, the Court was clear that the government cannot coerce someone to participate in a particular religion, but it also should not attempt to restrict all acts of faith from the public square. The concept of a “separation of church and state” reinforces the legal right of a free people to freely live their faith, even in public; without fear of government coercion. Free exercise means you may have a faith and you may live it.

Before he died, Thomas Jefferson left instructions that in his grave’s epitaph, he wished to be remembered for three things — one of them being the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. On Religious Freedom Day, we should do just that, look back with gratitude for a nation that guarantees a free church in a free state. Separation of church and state doesn’t shut down our debates over religion in the public square; it guarantees the freedom for us to respectfully have those debates. Faith is worth talking about in many places in American culture and, yes, maybe even at the dinner table.

Correction, March 11

The original version of this story misstated the year in which Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. It was 1802, not 1801.

Rupeshwari Dyllus