Separation of Church and State: Myths and Facts
America’s founders deliberately kept god out of the Constitution because they didn’t want a theocracy. But many Americans now try to force all of us to practice their faith, and prevent some from practicing different faiths. Nothing is more un-American.
James Madison and Gouverneur Morris wrote our Constitution from scratch in 1787, using pen and paper. There had never before been such a document. They could have put anything they wanted into it. They chose not to use the words “god”, “Christ”, “Christian”, or “Jesus” anywhere in it. They chose not to require an official religion. In fact, they forbid the government to require a religious test of any person who holds public office. Every one of the 13 original states accepted the new Constitution.
In 1789, they amended the Constitution with the Bill of Rights. The first amendment forbids government to establish a religion. Now, if they had wanted a Christian nation, surely they would have required it, and required religious tests for public servants. If they had wanted a theocracy, surely they would have said so.
Since so many of our schools don’t bother to teach the Constitution properly, here is the text of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Strident, tyrannical “christians” like to proclaim that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. They’re right; it doesn’t. They claim that as “proof” that the separation doesn’t exist. They’re wrong. The phrases “three equal branches of government”, “innocent until proven guilty”, and “majority rule” aren’t there either, but the concepts do exist in our government.
Thomas Jefferson himself created the phrase in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association:
… Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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, therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”
The First Amendment creates the separation of church and state, just as the first three articles of the Constitution create the three equal branches of our government. The federal government recognizes this separation in many ways to this day. Churches are exempt from income taxes and do not have to file formal requests for tax exempt status like other nonprofit organizations.
Federal courts have held that the establishment clause (“respecting an establishment of religion”) means that the government may not show any preference for one religion over another, sponsor or promote religion or religious practices in any way, prevent people from privately practicing their own faiths, or require anyone to perform religious rituals at all. That’s where the phrase “freedom from religion” comes from. The separation works both ways. If we permit religious interference in the government, then the government will be free to interfere with religion. Do you want the government to tell your pastor what to preach?
In 1952, at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunt, the Rev. Billy Graham convinced Congress to pass a law requiring the president of the United States to tell private citizens that they are supposed to pray on a particular day. US Code, Title 36, Section 119 says:
The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.
Various federal district courts have held that and several similar state laws to be unconstitutional. It violates the First Amendment because it goes beyond mere “acknowledgment” of religion. Its only purpose is to encourage all of us to pray, a blatantly religious practice that serves no secular function. In this case, the government takes sides on a matter that belongs to individual conscience. When the government forces a religious practice, it violates every individual’s right to decide whether and how to worship.
None of the National Day of Prayer cases has yet reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The national motto on our currency, “In God We Trust” and the Pledge of Allegiance “under God” phrase are also unconstitutional for the same reason. Unfortunately, no one has yet had the time, energy, and money to fight those battles in court.
The American Civil Liberties Union handles hundreds of religious freedom issues every year, though only a handful result in court action. According to their website,
The goal of the ACLU’s work on freedom of religion and belief is to guarantee that all are free to follow and practice their faith – or no faith at all – without governmental influence or interference. Through litigation, public education, and advocacy, the ACLU promotes religious freedom and works to ensure that government neither prefers religion over non-religion nor favors particular faiths over others. At the same time, we act to protect the equally important and related constitutional right to exercise and express religious beliefs and individual conscience.
This is why our public schools can’t teach religion and can’t force students to pray, holiday displays on public property must be open to all faiths, and our public buildings can’t display bible passages. You are free to pray, or not. You are free to practice any religion, or none at all. You are free to display religious symbols on your jewelry, clothing, car, home, and private property. You are free to propose a Constitutional amendment establishing the United States of America as a Christian theocracy. (Good luck with that.) You are not free to force others to do any of those things.
You do not have to accept someone else’s version of a “god”. It is not the government’s business to tell you that you should pray. It is most certainly not the government’s business to schedule your prayers. Gee. You’d think that the very people who so strenuously object to “big government” and rant about the trampling of the Constitution would be able to grasp this concept.
Despite what most Americans believe, the president, members of Congress and the military, and public employees are NOT required to take their oaths of office on a bible or to utter the phrase “so help me God”. Those are traditions, not laws.
Most Americans claim to believe in a god, and to practice one religion or another. If you want to pray or go to church, go right ahead. Your private organization is free to sponsor a prayer event any time you like. You don’t need Congress to help. And don’t try to force the rest of us into it.
For more information:
Read the U.S. Constitution
Thomas Jefferson “Wall of Separation” Letter
U.S. Supreme Court Opinions, Separation of Church and State
American Civil Liberties Union
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State