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The Separation of Church & State

October 24, 2010 by Vicki

“The Separation of Church and State.” We hear that phrase used on an almost daily basis. Especially when someone is offended by a Christian symbol, or prayers, in a place “they” deem inappropriate. Like government properties. Or public schools. However, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, I don’t think it means what you think it means.

“But it’s in the Constitution,” you argue.

Well…. I double-dog dare you to find it in the Constitution. Go ahead. Go look. Take your time. I’ll wait.

So? Did you find it? No? Color me surprised.

For those who don’t have time to look it up, here’s the amendment in question:

  • Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression.

    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.

It says nothing about avoiding any mention of Christian symbols on government property. What it does say is the government can’t force you to join a religion. Nor can the government create a national religion.

So where did the phrase come from? A letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1802. They had written him, expressing concern the Constitution did not reach the state level. He wrote back to reassure them their religious freedom would be protected. He promised that no religious majority would be able to force out a State’s official church. The original text says, “…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.”

See? It has nothing to do with the government not allowing religious symbols on government properties. It has nothing to do with prayer in school. So what do you say we quit having hissy fits if somebody deigns to erect a cross in front of a courthouse? You want to add a religious symbol from your religion? Go ahead! I don’t mind.


  1. And now I wish your blog was the most popular blog in the blog-o-sphere… because more people need to see that.

    In fact, I think I’m going to share it with some folks… 😀

  2. Brandy says:

    I SO agree with you. There’s a semi-big thing going on in NC about a Christian flag on a war memorial. One person complained about it and the mayor and city council voted to take it down. A former soldier, a Vet, is staging a vigil to have the flag kept up.
    I am tired of being persecuted for being Christian. I think people also forget why the Pilgrims chose to come here to begin with.
    And taking prayer out of schools? Is it just me or are alot of the kids since that was enacted more selfish and more disrespectful? (In public schools.)

  3. Doug Indeap says:

    The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the underlying principle of the First Amendment and the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution. That the phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, only to those who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, figure they’ve discovered the smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to describe one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

  4. Martin says:

    To understand Justice Hugo Black’s insertion of “separation of church and state” into the Constitution, it is important also to examine his membership in the KKK and his obsessive fear of Catholics, which he believed were “taking over” and needed to be stopped. What Black sought to do was to invent a firewall that clearly did not exist – one need only read our history or walk among the scripture-adorned buildings and monuments in Washington D.C. to see this quite clearly.

    Unfortunately, bigotry begets bigotry, and so what this man of the black robe and the white sheet has started, others – particularly in terms of a small confederation of those completely disinterested in U.S. history, its culture or the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution, to say nothing of the Constitution itself – have happily taken up.

    Those who argue Black’s points merely present themselves as usually unwitting pawns of a man who is of the lowest character and whose legal professionalism lacks no spot or wrinkle.

  5. Doug Indeap says:

    The KKK-anti-Catholic smear against Justice Black is sometimes offered as an explanation for his opinion in Everson v. Board of Education–even though nothing in his opinions remotely supports that claim, all nine justices agreed on the principle that the First Amendment called for separation of church and state (so it was hardly just Black’s doing), and Black led the majority of five in holding that the principle did NOT preclude state funding of transportation of students to parochial schools.

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