Throughout the history of the United States, involvement of religion in state affairs has been a constant issue. "The place of religion in a pluralistic society has generated a seemingly endless supply of legal disputes about the proper relationship between church and state" (Kenneth Wald). This highly debated, controversial issue, which leads to dozens of court cases every decade, never seems to cease. "Religion, once a part of the glue holding American society together, now appears to be contributing substantially to society's breaking apart" (Charles Dunn). Many believe that a unification of religion and government in any way would be an infraction of our rights and freedom granted to us by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The framers of the Constitution felt that a separation of church and state would protect the United States from repeating the history of many European countries. Because of the Reformation, the inspiration for the settlement of America, the founders believed that the involvement of the church in American government would lead to the corruption of both. And so, in 1789, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution to protect us from this and guarantee our freedoms. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights reads:

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.

The initial phrase "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." is what is known now as the establishment clause. The Supreme Court has interpreted this as meaning that a separation of church and state is required. Because of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court not only prohibits the government from adopting an official religion or denomination, but also requires the government to avoid any involvement in religion. The founders believed that if the government attempted to sponsor a religion it would endanger personal freedom, social harmony, and religion itself. They believed that the government should not support any one religion, church, or church-related institution.

The second phrase "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." is known as the free exercise clause. The purpose of it is to establish religious freedom in our society. On a case-by-case basis, the limits of this clause are being tested continuously in the courts.

In today's society there is much diversity among beliefs and lifestyles. America was the first country in history to establish separation between church and state. Still today, there is controversy on the idea that the founders intended a separation between church and state. Some people believe that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution is not really what was the intention of the founders.

There are many issues today that bring up controversy between the government and religious groups. Abortion, women's role in society, pornography, homosexuality, the teaching of evolution in school, etc. are all sensitive subjects to those of various religious beliefs and faiths. Many religious groups lobby in order to influence government officials to make decisions in their favor. Contemporary controversies about prayer and religious clubs in public schools and government recognition of holidays exemplify the continuing debate over church-state relations.

There are many reasons for separation of religion and politics in today's society. The U.S. Constitution contains no mention of any religion or its deity. It is a secular document with no references favoring a particular religion. "Not only is it un-American for the government to promote religion, it is rude" (Dan Barker). It is important for our country to be neutral to religion as fairness to all of its citizens. "Neutrality offends no one, and protects everyone" (Barker). Keeping governmental policy free of religious binding is the only way to ensure religious freedom in America. Religious involvement in state affairs would ruin the purpose of the First Amendment. "The wisest policy is one of neutrality" (Barker).

Ignoring history, law, and fairness, many fanatics are working vigorously to turn America into a Christian nation. Fundamentalist Protestants and right-wing Catholics would impose their narrow morality on the rest of us, resisting women's rights, freedom for religious minorities and unbelievers, gay and lesbian rights, and civil rights for all. History shows that only harm comes from uniting church and state (Barker).

Barker, Dan. "Is America a Christian Nation?"
Dunn, Charles. Religion in American Politics.
Wald, Kenneth. Church and State in America.

The "wall of separation between Church and State" was not built overnight, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was just one brick.

The Establishment Clause did not apply to the States. An establishment of religion, i.e. direct tax aid to churches, was the situation in nine of the thirteen colonies on the eve of the American revolution. Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania had never had an establishment of religion. After the Declaration of Independence, the new states began writing constitutions, usually abandoning state-sponsorship for a particular religion or sect, and by approximately 1791, nine of eleven states that ratified the amendments of 1789 had disestablished. In the New England, however, the process went on well into the 1800s: Connecticut in 1818, New Hampshire in 1819, and finally Massachusetts disestablished in 1833. Even after "disestablishment", some states persisted in tax-support for religion, by "general assessment" meaning the proceeds were available to all denominations.

The end of government tax support did not hurt religion in America. In fact, quite the opposite, it seemed to help, at least with "fringe" religious activity, previously suppressed by the state-supported established churches. Official disestablishment was followed by a wave of religious fervor, the likes of which were unprecedented. Revivalism swept the country, greatly expanding the Methodist and Baptist churches in America, and numerous sects were founded: Mormons, Shakers, Unitarians, Adventists, African Methodists . . . all got their start in the early 19th Century following the end of state-sponsored religion.

In 1830, one observer wrote:

I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion; for who can read the human heart? but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Tr. Henry Reeve (London: 1835).

While current battles over the Establishment Clause generally involve schools, the current "hands off" approach to religion in schools developed much later than the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Disestablishment did not mean the removal of religion from schools. In 1838, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill requiring the use of "the Bible" (meaning the Protestant King James Version or "KJV") as a textbook in the schools. Pennsylvania was formerly one of the centers of religious tolerance, but by the late 1830's had become extremely intolerant towards Catholics. The change resulted from massive Irish Catholic immigration, fleeing the Great Potato Famine. By 1842 there was considerable strife about which Bibles children could use in schools --the KJV or the Catholic "Douay" version. Violent riots erupted in Philadelphia.

Anti-Catholic bigotry (known as "nativism") marked the period from the end of the Civil War until the Twentieth Century. Schools were often the battleground. On December 14, 1875, James G. Blaine, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives and soon-to-be-announced candidate for President, proposed what became to be known as the Blaine School Amendment. It provided:

No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect: nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided among religious sects or denominations.

(Congressional Record, 44th Congress, First Session, p. 205).

Some states admitted to the Union after the war were required by Congress to incorporate such language in their Constitutions. For example, the New Mexico Constitution, (Art XII, ยง 3) adopted in 1911, prohibits the use of public land or money for "any sectarian, denominational or private school, college or university". In fact, however, many public schools in New Mexico, particularly in rural areas, were operated by the Catholic Church (just as they had operated for centuries). Public money was used to buy Catholic parochial school textbooks for New Mexico public schools well into the 20th century, until a lawsuit in the 1950's secured the end of the practice.

In the Twentieth Century, this "nativist" attitude gradually divested itself of its origins in bigotry, became a majority opinion, and was adopted in federal Constitutional law, culminating with the Lemon test, from the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The Lemon test holds that an act of government, in order to be constitutional, must (1) be primarily secular in purpose; (2) neither advance nor inhibit religion; and (3) avoid excessive entanglement with religion. In Lemon, the Court held that paying the salaries of teachers in religious schools, even though they were teaching secular subjects and not religion, fostered excessive "entanglement" with religion.


Library of Congress: Religion and the Founding of American Republic:

Boston, Rob, "Bible Riots: When Christians Killed Each Other Over Religion in Public Schools", Liberty (May/June 1997)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.