The Separation of Church and State

Why should we care about the separation of church and state? Is the division of government and religion a good thing? What does this concept even mean?

The term “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the US Constitution. What does appear, however, are these words in the First Amendment, stating that “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

So, people are free to practice whatever religion they please (free exercise), but the government will not endorse or establish those religions (establishment clause).

That sounds pretty good.

But the Constitution does more for our nation than that. Article 6 assures that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. Article 6 was a reaction to the Test Acts performed under English penal law, which sought to deny civil liberties to Roman Catholics.

Then in 1797, the US signed a peace treaty with Tripoli to end privateering from nations of the Barbary Coast. Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli reads:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

There is some dispute about the English and Arabic translations of Article 11, but the above English translation was the version ratified by Congress.

So far we understand that the United States:

  1. has free exercise and establishment clauses
  2. prohibits Test Acts
  3. was not founded on the Christian religion

None of that sounds bad, in fact it sounds really good, so why the controversy surrounding the idea of separation of church and state?

It has a lot to do with Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation.

Disagreement exists over where that wall should be placed.

Some feel that the wall does not provide enough separation from the church, that the church has too much freedom and control in government affairs.

Some feel the wall provides too much separation, that the government is attempting to crush religious practices and deny religious freedoms.

But who’s right?

I, and others, believe religion has too much influence on the government, but of course I am not a religious person.

Laws against gay marriage, like the recent Proposition 8, are examples of a religious belief crossing the wall of separation.

What would happen if other religious ideas were put in place by the government?

How would you react to a group of Orthodox Jews urging their state to ban the sale of pork products, and an anti-pork law is put into effect?

What if a group of Muslims urged their state to enforce “Hijab” and all non-compliant women would face criminal charges?

What happens to nations that do not exercise a separation of church and state?


No citizen should take the separation of church and state for granted.

Views: 23

Comment by Johnny on February 11, 2009 at 11:58am
Nice write-up Pam!

Other areas that the church has weaseled its way through the wall a long time ago: "under God" in the pledge, "In God We Trust" on money, and the 10 commandments on courthouses.

Also, without starting any debates on abortion, whether you agree or disagree with the principles of it, any law outlawing it would be religiously motivated.
Comment by Morgan Matthew on February 11, 2009 at 2:29pm
No citizen should take the separation of church and state for granted. now featured
Comment by Frank on February 11, 2009 at 4:25pm
Simple, yet excellently put.
Comment by James on February 12, 2009 at 9:39am
Very well put, Pam! But I also agree with Johnny. It's amazing that so many people have no idea that the currency, pledge and motto were not changed to include god until the 50's. They just think it has always been there...


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