Separation of Church and State: A Most Important

By Gerald A. Larue
Emeritus Professor of Biblical History and Archaeology
University of Southern California


These words, which were ratified in December, 1791, form the opening of
the Federal Constitution's first Amendment, and comprise what is known as
the "establishment clause" and the "free exercise clause." The language
reflects the founding fathers' deep concerns for individual liberty—a concern
that grew out of awareness of English and European edicts that often had
imposed on the general populace religious beliefs and morality that had to
be adhered to on pain of punishment. The commitments to freedom, which
were to become part of the development of what was, for Europeans, "the
new world," were not won easily.

The study of American history makes it clear that those who came from
Europe did not come religiously unencumbered. Nor did they always bring
with them a religious tolerance that would admit the validity of other similar,
but different, faith systems. If, perhaps, those whose religious history
included memories of persecution under tyrannical state-endorsed religious
systems entertained some interest in supporting the formation of a
governing system whereby no single religion could ever ally itself with
government to enforce any single dogma, that concern was seldom evident.

Madison’s Concern

The importance of the separation of church and state became clear to
James Madison who has often been called, "Father of the Constitution." In
June, 1785, Madison opposed a bill sponsored by Patrick Henry that would
have placed a tax on all Virginians for the nondiscriminatory support of
religion—that is, each taxpayer might designate the church to which his tax
money would go. The taxes of the nonreligious would be used to support
secular education. Madison's broadside, titled "Memorial and
Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," was published in
Alexandria and quickly spread. He wrote, in part:

Religion can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or
violence. The religion, then, of every man, must be left to the conviction
and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it
as these may dictate. In matters of religion no man's right is abridged by
the institution of civil society; and religion is wholly exempt from its
cognizance . . .

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity,
in exclusion of all other religions, may establish, with the same ease, any
particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? That the same
authority that can call for each citizen to contribute three pence only of his
property for the support of only one establishment, may force him to
conform to any other establishment, in all cases whatsoever?

If "all men by nature are equally free and independent," they are to be
considered as retaining an "equal right to free exercise of religion,
according to dictates of conscience." While we assert for ourselves a
freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe, the religion which we
believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those
whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced

Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of
maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had contrary
operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of
Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less, in all
places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the
laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution. Enquire of the
teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest
lustre; those of every sect point to the ages prior to incorporation with civil
policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive state, in which its teachers
depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks; many of them predict its

What influences, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil
society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual
tyranny on the ruins of civil authority; in many instances they have been
seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they
been seen the guardians of liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to
subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy
convenient auxiliaries. A just government instituted to secure and
perpetuate it, needs them not.

Religious Liberty and Free Society

It was out of a combination of deism and reason that recognition of the
importance of a free society was to emerge—a society composed of a free
people who could not be compelled to accept or to live by any given set of
religious beliefs. According to historian Henry Steele Commager, the
decision was "perhaps the most important decision reached in the New
World. Everywhere in the western world of the eighteenth century, church and
state were one; and everywhere the state maintained the established church
and tried to force conformity to its dogma." As a consequence of that
decision, Commager notes: "Thus the United States took the lead among
the nations of the earth in the establishment of religious freedom. That is one
reason America has never had any religious wars or religious persecutions."

The Amendment provides for freedom from any religion as well as freedom
of religion. This means that Americans are free to belong to the religious
organization of their choice, thereby rejecting the claims of any other faith
system. Simultaneously, they are free from the need to accept another's
beliefs. At the same time, they are free to create new religions, thereby
rejecting all other established religions. They are also free to choose not to
belong to or believe in any religion. No matter what the choice, each and
every American maintains full status as a citizen. These rights have been
widely recognized and acclaimed, not only by those in the legal profession,
but also by Protestant and, on occasion, Roman Catholic churches.

For example, the American Baptist Churches have had a long history
supporting individual human rights. In a Policy Statement on Human Rights
adopted by the General Board of the American Baptist Churches in
December, 1976, it was stated that:

Baptist history is rooted in concern for conscience and freedom for
persons to believe, to choose, to live unregimented, whether by religious
dogma and institution or by social and political structures. John Bunyan in
prison and Roger Williams driven from Massachusetts, reflect
commitment to these ideas, as did Martin Luther King, in his witness to
human dignity and the rights of minority groups. Resolutions by the
American Baptist Churches over the years have particularly sought to
reflect the denomination's basic principles of freedom of thought and
belief, the right of dissent, and the responsibility to speak prophetically to
church and society and support human dignity and social justice.

As the report continues, the first statement relates to freedom of and
freedom from religion:

As American Baptists we declare the following rights to be basic human
rights, and we will support programs and measures to assure these rights:
1. The right of every person to choose a religion freely, to maintain
religious belief or unbelief without coercion; the right for communities of
faith to meet together to engage in public worship, to witness publicly to
others, to speak prophetically from religious conviction to government and
society, to live out religious beliefs, and to be free from governmental
intrusion, coercion, and control in the free exercise of conscience and
religion . . .

It is important to note that the Resolution recognizes the rights of persons
who endorse "unbelief" in religion as a basis for life. The rights that the
resolution claims for those who "maintain religious belief" are the same
rights afforded to those who choose not to maintain such beliefs.

On May 26, 1988, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin addressed the Center for
Clinical Medical Ethics, University of Chicago Hospital. His subject was
"Euthanasia: Ethical and Legal Challenge." He began his address as

One of the hallmarks of our democratic system of government and our
social environment here in the United States is the fact that a plurality of
views informs our public discourse regarding fundamental human
questions. At times, these views flow from religious beliefs. At other times,
they derive from philosophical or pragmatic judgments about the meaning
and purpose of life.

This pluralism is the result of the free speech accorded by the Constitution
to each citizen as well as the right both to freely exercise one's religion and
to practice no religion. (italics his). But this constitutionally protected
pluralism has not been bought at the price of excluding religious or moral
values from the public life of the nation. On the contrary, the goal of the
American system has been to provide space for moral or religious
substance in our society.

Indeed, in our pluralistic society we must decide how those who have such
beliefs or ethical principles may appropriately participate in the
development of public policy. In my view, positions that are informed by
particular religious beliefs or philosophical assumptions need to be
translated into commonly agreed upon language, arguments, and
categories before they can become the moral or ethical foundations for
key public policy choices.

As one might expect, Cardinal Bernardin's guiding principles will be derived
from his Roman Catholic faith. However, the Cardinal, like those of the
Baptist faith, recognized and acknowledged the rights of others to accept no
religion and to base their guiding principles on a philosophy or on
philosophies. This idea has important overtones regarding the
responsibilities of both government and education.

"Jefferson’s Wall"

Because the government may not engage in the promotion or endorsement
of any particular belief system, it is automatically required by law to honor
and respect all of the varying forms of belief and non-belief expressed by the
people. What the First Amendment created was, in the words of Thomas
Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, "a
wall of separation between church and state." The protections of freedom
guaranteed by this wall of separation include both the individual right to free
choice and to privacy of choice. That is to say that not only is the individual
free to make a personal choice regarding belief or disbelief in any or all
religions, but that the person cannot be required to disclose that choice or
have that choice used against him or her as a basis for discrimination. We
are all equal under the law of the land, no matter in what we choose to
believe or disbelieve. This concept was reinforced in Justice Black's
decision in the 1947
Everson v. Board of Education case:

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at
least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church.
Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer
one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to
or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a
belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for
entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church
attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can
be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they
may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice
religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or
secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organization or groups
and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment
of religion by law was intended to erect "a wall of separation between
church and state."

The "wall" that was erected pertains not only to the establishment of a
religion, but also to the establishment of religious codes of morality. For
example, a given religion may believe that divorce is acceptable only on the
grounds of adultery. Civil codes cannot be limited by what that particular
religion accepts as right and proper. Civil morality must be secular morality,
which is to say that the acceptable reasons for legal divorce cannot be
restricted by what a religious group claims to be proper. Therefore legal
divorce becomes possible on other grounds ranging from incompatibility to
infidelity. Any given religious organization may have its own grounds for
acknowledging the divorce, but that policy remains within the faith system
and has no legitimacy or significance for the general populace.

Some religious groups may condemn homosexuality on the basis of an
interpretation of what is, for them, authoritative or revealed divine
commands. Other religious groups, using the same sources, may provide a
different interpretation that accepts homosexuality. For example, the
Metropolitan Community Churches are Christian churches whose
membership is composed largely of Christian homosexuals. Governments
may not pass legislation based solely on religious morality; and although
legislation may be cognizant of the varying belief systems, the legislation
must embrace the social, political and personal rights of all people, including
homosexuals. In other words, civil laws that formulate communal moral and
ethical standards must be secular—not derived solely from a religious belief

Teaching about Ultimate Beliefs

It is both inappropriate and illegal for any public school or any public school
teacher to propagate or to endorse in any way the concepts or dogmas
associated with any specific religion or belief system. Although the teaching
and promulgation of a particular faith system is accepted as appropriate in
educational institutions founded and funded as private religious
organizations, it is both inappropriate and illegal for any public school or any
public school teacher to propagate or to endorse in any way the concepts or
dogmas associated with any specific religion or belief system. However, in
courses where teaching about religion is authorized by the state educational
system, it is proper and it is legal to teach
about religions.

Teaching about religions automatically includes recognition of the rights of
people living in a free society to choose between the various faith systems
as well as their right to reject any one or all of such faith systems. Teaching
about religions requires the recognition of the legitimacy of lives lived
according to varying belief systems as well as the legitimacy of lives
committed to a nonreligious life style. That is to say, that teaching about
religions must include teaching about the beliefs of those who reject a
religion or religions.

March 19, 2003
Instruction Systems grants the right to freely duplicate this essay for educational

Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .