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Religious Tolerance logo

Separation of Church and State

Introduction (Part 1)

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Problems with the term "church and state:"

Although this term is in near universal use throughout North America, it can be confusing. The principle actually involves separation of religion, not just churches, from the government.

The principal religion in western hemisphere has been Christianity since the 16th century; it continues to be the choice of about 75% of the U.S. and Canadian adult populations. But, "religion" in the U.S. involves much more than Christian churches; it includes:

bulletChurches, circles, groves, gurdwaras, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc., and the organizations of which they are a part.

bulletSolitary practitioners of an organized religion.

bulletPeople who consider themselves religious, but are not affiliated with any specific group.

bulletHumanists, secularists, Agnostics, Atheists, etc. all of whom have specific religious beliefs. Although some would consider them non-religious, if you ask an Agnostic what their religion is, they will probably reply "Agnostic."

Many lawsuits about the entanglement of religion and government have involved conflicts between Christian churches or denominations and  state laws and regulations. That is to be expected, because Christinas make up about 75% of the adult population, whereas the next largest organized religions -- Judaism and Islam -- are only about 1% eacy. There have been some major cases involving other religions:

bulletThe U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a Florida municipality and decided that followers of the Santeria religion could engage in animal sacrifices, as long as the killing was humanely done.

bulletA Supreme Court case which involved Native American Spiritual practices triggered a whole series of federal religious freedom laws which reduced the power of governments to interfere in religious matters.

bulletA 2005-MAY decision of the Supreme Court guaranteed the freedom of prison inmates to practice their religion. Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy -- a conservative Christian group -- commented: "It is a sign of the times, I suppose that it took a Witch and a Satanist to secure the rights of inmates to worship."

The term "separation of religion and state" would be a much less confusing term. It would be more accurate. It might not be as troublesome to Christians as "church and state" which can imply that there is some sort of a vendetta oppressing Christianity. However, "separation of church and state" is firmly imbedded in the culture, and so we will generally use it here.

Historical integration of church and state:

For the past 2 millennia, in most countries, church and state had been either linked or actually merged:

bulletEngland has recognized the Church of England as their official religion for centuries. The queen is the head of the church. Changes in church policies must be approved by the House of Lords.

bulletThe 19th Century Russian government had an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church; after the revolution, Atheism became the new official "religion." They have since made strides to again give the Russian Orthodox Church special status.

bulletThe German government collects religious taxes from the public, and transfers them to the main Protestant and Catholic churches. The government also substantially finances these churches out of state funds.

The American colonies had largely followed that principle as well. There were many examples of religious discrimination written into the constitutions of various states during the years following the revolutionary war. Typical laws:

bulletEstablished a loyalty oath for legislators and government employees, requiring them to believe in the Trinity, and/or the divine inspiration of the Bible.

bulletProhibited clergy from holding office.

bulletRequired legislators to be Protestant Christians.

bulletPermitted the state to support the Christian religion from general tax revenue.

bulletGranted religious and other human rights only to Christians, or only to theists.

bulletSpecified "The Protestant Religion" (whatever that meant) to be the established religion of the state.

bulletRequired citizens to observe the weekly Sabbath or Lord's day.

Religious freedom in Virginia:

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson was concerned about the power of the Church of England within Virginia. He felt a guarantee of religious freedom was the best guarantee that America would avoid the religious intolerance and religiously inspired bloodshed that had marked much of the history of Europe. He wrote an Act for Establishing Religious Freedom; after a long battle, it became law in Virginia on 1786-JAN-16. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was based in part on that act.

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"Wall of Separation" between Church and State

Thomas Jefferson, as president, wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut on 1802-JAN-1. It contains the first known reference to the "wall of separation". The essay states in part:

"...I contemplate with solemn 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 and State..."

During the 1810's, President James Madison wrote an essay titled "Monopolies" which also refers to the importance of church-state separation. He stated in part:

"Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history."

The US Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment as if it requires this "wall of separation" between church and state. It not only prohibits any government from adopting a particular denomination or religion as official, but requires government to avoid excessive involvement in religion.

Church/state separation in the U.S. Constitution:

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned that European history might repeat itself in the new world. They wanted to avoid the continual wars motivated by religious hatred that had decimated many countries within Europe. They decided that a church/state separation was their best assurance that the U.S. would remain relatively free of inter-religious strife. Many commentators feel that over two centuries of relative religious peace in the U.S. have shown that they were right.

In 1789, the first of ten amendments were written to the Federal Constitution; they have since been known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment 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."

This was ratified by the States in 1791.

This topic is continued in a second essay

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Books, articles and organizations concerning church-state separation:


  • E.S. Gaustad, "Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation", Harper & Row, New York, NY, (1987)
  • James Davidson and Os Guiness, editors, "Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace: The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy". Hunter, Washington DC (1990).
  • A.A. Lipscomb & A.E. Bergh, editors, "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson", Washington, (1907), Vol. 16, P. 281
  • Kristen J. Amundson, "Religion in the Public Schools", American Assn. School Administrators, 1986-JUN, ISBN: 087652109X
  • Richard McMillan, "Religion in the Public Schools : An Introduction" , Mercer University Press, 1984-SEP, ISBN: 0865540934
  • Deborah Mayo-Jefferies, "Religious Freedom in the Education Process: A Research Guide to Religion in Education (1950-1992)", William S Hein & Co., 1994-JUN, ISBN: 0899418716
  • J.W. Whitehead, "The rights of Religious Persons in Public Education", Crossway, Wheaton, IL, (1994).


  • Mary Leonard, "Religion and Politics: Christian soldiers march onward - and wayward", Boston Globe, Boston Ma, 1997-MAR-9.
  • David Sehat, "Five myths about church and state in America," The Washington Post, 2011-APR-11, at:


The Yahoo search engine has a entire directory on church-state issues at:

Copyright © 1995 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2011-AUG-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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