What Is Separation of Church and State?
When the role of religion in politics comes up in today's public discourse, the phrase "separation of church and state" is often part of the conversation. Proponents say this separation is law and must be maintained. Opponents say that this phrase never appears in the Constitution and goes too far in taking religion out of public life. Where does this phrase come from, and what does it mean?
What is the separation of church and state?
The words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but the concept is enshrined in the very first freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Known as the establishment clause, the opening lines of the First Amendment prohibit the government from creating an official religion or favoring one religion (or nonreligion) over another.
The separation of church and state enables all Americans to practice their deeply held beliefs in private and in public.
Where did the separation of church and state come from?
The United States' founders were committed to a government not overly entangled with religion.
In 1644, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and of the first Baptist church in America, called for a "wall or hedge of separation" between the secular world and sacred church. He believed that mixing the two would cause both to become corrupt. Williams created a colony where the freedom to worship was a right for all. This influenced American thinking for centuries to come.
Though they didn't use the phrase "separation of church and state," the framers of the Constitution debated the extent to which the government should support religion. Some argued that it was fine to mandate participation in religious services, if a person could choose which ones they would attend. More commonly, many of the founders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, argued that government compulsion of religion violated a person's natural right to shape their own life according to their convictions.
Jefferson immortalized the phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Concerned about their status as a religious minority, the Baptist community penned a letter to the president expressing fear about religious persecution. Jefferson responded, emphasizing that the First Amendment's free exercise and establishment clauses together built "a wall of separation between church and state."
For many people coming to America – then and now – religious discrimination by governments was a part of daily life. Both the founders' own experiences with religious persecution, and the reality that the United States is a country with people who have a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds, made it essential to protect all Americans' deeply held beliefs.
In addition to the First Amendment, each state has separated religion from government, providing protections for religious liberty in their state constitutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has also said that states must uphold this religious freedom principle. Today, the establishment clause prohibits all levels of government from either advancing or inhibiting religion.
"The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state," which "must be kept high and impregnable." – Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Everson v. Board of Education (1947)
Why the separation of church and state matters
The founders disagreed about the exact meaning of "no establishment" under the First Amendment, and those arguments continue today. But ultimately, preventing government from interfering with religion is an essential principle of religious liberty.
Without separating church from state, true religious freedom is impossible.
Allowing one religious group preferential access or power can lead to a polarizing and contentious environment where "We the People" applies only to those in the majority at any given moment. Government support of religion puts some people's rights and beliefs over those of others. In the worst cases, it can require everyone — believers and nonbelievers alike — to jeopardize their beliefs to get equal treatment under the law.
The idea of separation of church and state ensures the government cannot exercise undue influence over Americans' spiritual and religious lives. From ending school-mandated prayer to banning the government from coercing Americans to participate in religious activities, the wall of separation has been an essential tool in building a freer democracy. And this uniquely American approach has resulted in one of the most religiously diverse nations in history.
Critically, the establishment clause separates church from state but not religion from politics or public life. People are free to bring their religious convictions into the public square precisely because the government must treat all faiths equally.
This includes politicians who are free to express their religious beliefs — but not to sponsor legislation based solely on religious convictions. The establishment clause protects the majority from undue influence from the government and encourages lesser-known religious traditions to petition the government for equal rights.
By removing the government's ability to give preferential treatment to one religion (or religion in general), the separation of church and state promotes religious pluralism and allows all Americans to practice their deeply held beliefs in private and public.
David Callaway is the religious freedom specialist for the Freedom Forum. He can be reached at [email protected].