SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE:
The separation of church and state has been fiercely debated for more than three centuries. Before America became an independent union some of the English immigrants, known as Puritans, were coming to this new land to break away from the rule of the Church of England. The Puritans were attempting to “create a new church, all the while not separating from the old one” (Gaustad 50). However, there were others who believed that in order to completely reform the church, they should separate from the Mother Church. Many of the diehard Puritans believed that the separatist attitude was ungrateful, and consequently no one would take action. Roger Williams, a Calvinistic Puritan who later reformed to Separatism, was a very prominent historical figure in fighting for the separation of church and state. When the United States Constitution was being written, the real debate over religious freedom began. The words separation of church and state are never actually mentioned in the United States Constitution. When the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was written, the writers considered the popular belief that God created free will in all people, and that the Government should not be allowed to restrain that free will. Another consideration was the taxation placed on the people for the purpose of financing all churches no matter what their beliefs. Consequently, people of one faith were being forced to contribute to churches of different faiths, which in their eyes infringed on their God given right to freedom of religion. Our forefathers saw a need to protect religion from the government and were very careful in choosing their words for the First Amendment. There is very little difference in the fight for religious freedom even now in the 21st Century. This battle is still being fought today in our society, as it is heatedly debated in our Congress, city hall, and all the way to the Supreme Court.
When Roger Williams came to Massachusetts Bay in 1631, he came with ”a reputation for learning and piety” (Miller 163), or religious devotion, and was soon offered a position as a minister in a Boston church. However, although he was a Puritan and believed the Church of England needed purifying, he also believed the new churches needed to be separated from the rule of the Church of England and the civil government. He turned down the ministerial position and later wrote “ ‘I durst not officiate to an unseparated people’ ” (Guastad 64). Because of the Puritan belief that “there had to be one uniform national religious policy” (Miller, 161), Williams moved on to Salem, and then to Plymouth where he became the leader of a separatist group. Williams was in fact, so much a separatist that it later became his demise. As an assistant pastor of a church in Salem, he attacked the church government, and then went on to attack the civil government as well. He was “protesting that magistrates must not punish Sabbathbreakers or violaters of any other religious requirement” (Gaustad 64-65). He was insisting to the New England government that they had no jurisdiction over the church because they had not properly purchased the land it sat on from the Indians. As a result of this outcry by Williams, he was ordered by trial verdict “that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction” (Gaustad 65). This event led Williams to a new settlement he named Providence, which he purchased from the Indians. Many separatists, as well as others, came flocking to this newly established land. One settler who helped Williams, in a profound way, establish the groundwork for religious freedom was John Clarke. The labors of these two men, Clarke and Williams, were intense and later rewarded by the Royal Charter obtained in 1663. This Charter declared “…that no person within the colony at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or call in question, for any differences of opinion in matters of religion…” (Gaustad 67). This charter allowed them the religious freedom, or separation from the state they had so vigorously fought for and brought on an era of “toleration” where all religions, idealistically, could coexist peacefully. This was where the separation of church and state began.
In 1776 the United States declared its independence and in 1787 the Constitution was born. The Constitution was written in such a way that it did not infer a Supreme Creator or God. This was because the forefathers recognized that not everyone in America was Christian. For instance, the Quakers interpreted the Bible to say they should refrain from oaths, which was why the last paragraph in Article VI says government officials in office “shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution” (Miller, 108). The separation of church and state issue comes from the Establishment Clause in Article VI of the First Amendment of the Constitution and reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Gaustad 125). This clause has been interpreted that government may not sanction any church, cannot show favoritism of one religion or another, make laws that show religious favoritism, or make any person believe or not believe in any religion. “In short, government must be neutral toward religion and cannot be entangled with any religion” (FACT 1 of 6). Even after the Constitution was ratified, some states were still forcing taxes in support of churches because the Constitution declared freedom of religion at a federal level, yet not at the individual state level. This led Thomas Jefferson to write a document to the Virginia legislature in which he said “That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing of him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness…” (FACT 1 of 2) Thomas Jefferson was not the only President who believed in the Establishment Clause. Our first President George Washington, who was a devout Episcopalian, was not in favor of a union between church and state. He believed in the “liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship” (Miller 125). John Adams, the second President, who believed that religion brought purpose, meaning and strength to people lives, also believed in religious freedom saying, “Man cannot successfully flaunt God but must intelligently obey Him” (Miller 127). Although the first three Presidents all agreed on religious freedom, only Washington and Adams held days of public prayer and thanksgiving. When Jefferson became President he did away with those practices saying that they were religious practices “and, as such, belong in the province of religious societies, not of government” (Miller 131). He felt that government should deal with actions, not opinions, and that no one should be held accountable for his faith. In his view religion was between the individual and his God. Jefferson also believed that government mixed with religion was dangerous and wrong, yet John Adams disagreed. Ironically, both Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, and in spite of their differing beliefs, they were friends when they died.
“The term “state” denotes the politically organized community with its monopoly of coercive power. The “church” on the other hand, is a voluntary association which must depend on non-coercive religious motivation and persuasion in making its impact upon the individual and the community” (Wilson 220). Even in modern times the debate continues, the strength of the government versus the religious motivation in establishing freedom. From religion in public schools to religious acts that break laws, there have been courtroom battles over the meaning of Establishment. These court cases date back to the early twentieth century. After the Constitution was written religious diversity was widely accepted. However, it has caused great adversity in the courts as evidenced in the following: “Engel vs. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) – Court finds school prayer unconstitutional” (FACT p.1 of 6). This case, known as the “Regents’ Prayer Case” (Gaustad 381), decided by Justice Hugo Black, cited “… We think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government” (Gaustad 381). This was to say that prayer, a form of religious worship, was “constitutionally excluded from public education” (Gaustad 385). In 1963, Justice Tom Clark felt that religion was acceptable and desirable for not only good moral standards but to fully understand American History. Later that year other judges disagreed, for instance in “Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) – Court finds Bible reading over school intercom unconstitutional and Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) – Court finds forcing a child to participate in Bible reading and prayer unconstitutional” (FACT p. 1-2 of 6). Furthermore in 1992 “Lee vs. Weisman, 112 SCt. 2649” (Freedom 2 of 1-6) the court upheld that prayer in public school was unconstitutional. In addition to these court decisions, a more recent argument has come to light: the focus on prayer before school sponsored events. “Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court grilled attorneys closely on both sides…The case is being closely watched, since it is the first religion-and-schools dispute before the high court since 1992.” (Conn 16)
In 1993, in a different case that dealt with religious acts breaking laws, the court found an ordinance, passed by a Florida City to stop a religious group from using live animals for sacrifice in their ceremonies, was unconstitutional because it was aimed at a specific church. However, the sacrifice of animals was outlawed. The balance of right and wrong in these cases is extremely volatile. Historically, the court has had to be very careful not to infringe on the church’s freedom while imposing laws, as is evidenced in the above cited case. The constant battle for meaning in the law is a burden in and of itself, and the battleground is not limited to the courtrooms. In a recent Subcommittee Hearing of the House of Representatives there was an amendment introduced that had the sole purpose of restoring religious freedom, or the RFA. This proposal was passionately battled on the floor. Representative Chet Edwards of Texas said, with regards to the Establishment clause of the Constitution, “For over two centuries, that simple but profound statement has been the guardian of religious liberty…” (Edwards 6) He believes that if this bill is passed that “…it could damage religious freedom.” (Edwards 6) On the other side of the debate stood Representative Sanford Bishop of Georgia who stated “…we seek to correct instances where the Constitution has been misinterpreted in ways which in fact deny the people their religious freedom.” (Edwards 13) This resolution could have allowed people the freedom to publicly worship whomever or whatever they wanted, yet the government could not force any particular religious school prayer or discriminate against any religion, nevertheless it “…fell quite a ways short of garnering the necessary votes for passage, Istook insisted it would be back.” (Benen 10)
In conclusion, from the Protestantism of early America to the Liberalism of today, one can see how the evolution of the separation of church and state took place. It all started with the Puritan English Colony settlers attempting to purify the Church of England, and it intensified into legal battles with lawyers and judges who are still trying to interpret exactly what our forefathers meant in the sixteen words of the Establishment Clause. For example, Madison and Jefferson’s definitions of religious freedom stated that the government needed to stay out of the business of churches and the personal beliefs of the people. The United States Supreme Court now interprets this to mean that prayer in a public school is unconstitutional, which seems almost ludicrous at best. Establishment was articulated with the rights of all religions in mind, and was completely innocent in its meaning. “Although in its narrower definition religious liberty was achieved fairly early in the nation’s existence, in its broader definitions, and in the cultural issues it brings in its train, its full complexity is rising into view, 200 years after the Virginia statute was enacted” (Wilson 350). The evolution of the separation of church and state, and its meaning, was lost from the beginning conflict between the Puritans and Separatists, through to today’s courtrooms. From the politically organized community (the state) to the religious voluntary association (the church), there will always be conflict. Overall, one could determine that as long as there is plurality in religion and difference in beliefs, there will always be conflict on this subject. The complete separation of church and state will never evolve into what it was meant to be by our forefathers: the government out of the business of the church, as well as, out of the religious beliefs of the people.
Benen, Steve. “Instant Replay: The Church-State Grudge Match Is Set To Resume In Congress.”
Church & State 52.1 (Jan 1999): 8-11
Church & State 53.5 (May 2000): 19-20
“Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Texas ‘Football Prayer’ Case.”
Church & State 53.5 (May 2000): 16-17
Edwards, Chet. Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Restoring
Religious Freedom. Hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifth Congress, First Session on H.J. Res. 78, Serial 94, July 22, 1997. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1999
FACT. Thomas Jefferson on religious liberty: A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in
Virginia, 1785, by Thomas Jefferson. 28 Aug 1995. First Amendment Cyber-Tribune (FACT).
(6 June 2000)
Freedom of Liberty. An overall view of religious liberty as defined by U.S. Supreme Court cases.
14 Oct 1998. First Amendment Cyber-Tribune (FACT).
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Gaustad, Edwin Scott. A Religious History of America.
New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966.
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Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1965.