The US constitution has a provision that prevents the government from making laws which regulate an establishment of religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion. This simple statement that there should be no co-mingling between the church and the state, meaning, in simple terms, that there should be no involvement of the church in government affairs and there should be no involvement of the government in the affairs of the church.
This, of course does not mean that a member of the government cannot be a member of a church, nor does it implicate that a member of the government not believe in the God of their choosing.
There are a lot of sticky “on the fence” parts of this post as it is easy for anyone to cry foul play. It is for this reason that I am writing this post to try to clarify some of those points and how it relates to our current society.
The principle is paraphrased from Thomas Jefferson’s “separation between Church & State.” It has been used to express the understandings of the intent and function of this amendment, which allows freedom of religion. It is generally traced to a January 1, 1802, letter by Thomas Jefferson, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, and published in a Massachusetts newspaper.
Jefferson wrote “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, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence the 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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
Jefferson reflects other thinkers, including Roger Williams, a Baptist Dissenter and founder of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1644, he wrote “When they, the Church have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World.”
In keeping with the lack of an established state religion in the United States, unlike in many European nations at the time, Article Six of the United States Constitution specifies that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Jefferson’s metaphor of a wall of separation has been cited repeatedly by the US Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. United States, (1879) the court wrote that Jefferson’s comments “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the First Amendment.” In Everson v. Board of Education, (1947) Justice Hugo Black wrote “In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”
In contrast to this emphasis on separation, the Supreme Court in Zorach v. Clauson, (1952) upheld accommodation, holding that the “nation’s institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” and that government recognition of God does not constitute the establishment of a state church as the Constitution’s authors intended to prohibit.
The extent of separation between government and religion in the US continues to be debated.
So what is all the fuss about and why are the court battles still being fought? After all, it seems from simple reading that the founding fathers believed that the church and the state should mind their own business and life would go on without issue.
It turns out, as anyone living in the US will know, God is mentioned many times in government business. For example, if you look at a twenty dollar bill, on the back of the paper note, you will notice at the top of the bill that it states “In God We Trust” as seen in the image below.
It should also be noted that when a person is elected as a peoples official, during the swearing in ceremony, the elected official to be will place their left hand on the bible, raising their right hand when ask if they will faithfully execute their duties of the office for which they have been elected, as stated in Article II, Section I, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution.
The newly elected official will then recite these words “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”
In Judaism and Christianity, the official motto “In God We Trust” is not found verbatim in any verses from the Bible, but very closely in the Old Testament in Psalm 91:2, “I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust” and in the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 1:10, “Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us.” The concept is paraphrased in Psalm 118:8, Psalm 40:3, Psalm 73:28, and Proverbs 29:25.
In Islam the word for the concept of reliance on God is called Tawakkul; the phrase “In God We Trust” is literally found in two places of the Quran, in Surah 10 Yunus, as well as Surah Al-A’raf (7:89), and several other verses reinforce this concept. Melkote Ramaswamy, a Hindu American scholar, writes that the presence of the phrase “In God We Trust” on American currency is a reminder that “there is God everywhere, whether we are conscious or not.”
This leaves interpretation wide open for debate as even though it does not clearly state in the First Amendment that there has to be a Separation of Church and State, it is implied by Jefferson’s speech.
But this still leaves questions. Again, we have to look at our current society to find out why there would be such a divide of what appears to be such simple words.
There is, of course the issue of abortion, where the church believes that a woman should keep the child. Many have cried foul play as they will state “what if the baby was from forced sex that the woman didn’t want.” What is failed to mention here is that if there was a ruling stating “ok, have it your way,” it would be abused and used as an excuse for millions of women to have an abortion even though that is not what was implied during the court battle of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113. A landmark decision of the US Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.
The other issue that has been in the spotlight for the last few years, (decade or more now) is that abortion clinics, as they are called, are largely funded by tax payer money, drawing a lot of criticism from the tax payers themselves and rightfully so as the government has effectively stated to the tax payers “but women shouldn’t have to make conscious decisions.” Meaning that if a woman decided to go to a bar with the thought of “ah screw it, I can get an abortion,” then it becomes an abuse of power and very much against the thought of the church.
And this is why the court battles will continue for some time to come over the founding fathers principle of Separation of Church and State.