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The Doctrine of Separation of Church and State

An overview of the establishment clause of the First Amendment and its role in American politics.
Story Series
Simply Civics

In 1802 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Convention in which he presented his views on the relationship between religion and the role of the state in the new nation. Basing his views on the establishment clause of the First Amendment which said that there should be “no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” Jefferson stated that there must be a “wall of separation” that clearly limited the involvement of religious denominations and religious leaders in matters related to national governance.

Founding Fathers like Jefferson were concerned that allowing religion and religious denominations to cross over the wall and introduce beliefs and practices into the governing realm would create a polarizing environment that could make policy decisions and national leadership a difficult and contentious process. There was concern in the early years of our nation and certainly today that religion could be used to pressure citizens who held different views or had no religious conviction to conform to the beliefs and practices of a particular religion. Jefferson, like many other of the early leaders of the United States, were committed to what is commonly called at secular state, in which citizens can openly hold religious beliefs and participate in religious services, but not seek to influence the direction of the state on matters of national policy. It is important to note that the words, God, Jesus and Christianity are not mentioned in the Constitution as evidence that the writers of this basic governing document wanted to put up a strong wall of separation.

As was the case with much of the language of the Bill of Rights and other articles of the Constitution, the federal court system had to interpret the establishment clause as it applied to real life experiences and conditions. For example, in a case out of Utah in 1879 (Reynolds v. U.S.), the court held that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) were not exempt from supporting polygamy among their faithful. The Justices stated that the practice of polygamy was indeed an example of moving over the walls of separation. Later, in a landmark decision in 1947, a divided Supreme Court agreed that providing bus transportation for children attending a Catholic school did not violate the establishment clause or the separation of church and state. The Justices stated that because the state funds to pay for the bus service was given to the parents and not to the church as a religious institution there was no constitutional infringement.

But perhaps the most contentious issue regarding the separation of church and state concerned prayer in public schools. At issue in the state of New York was whether a non-denominational prayer said at the beginning of the day was unconstitutional. In the decision (Engle v. Vitale), the Supreme Court stated that the school-sponsored prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, even if the students could be excused from the room or remain silent. The Engle case unleashed a torrent of controversy as many religious leaders and members of religious communities viewed the decision as an attack on prayer and the long-standing practice of starting the day with a recognition of God as part of the human experience. Following the Engle decision, the Supreme Court struck down other legal efforts, primarily in Southern states, to allow prayer at graduation ceremonies and at the beginning of football games.

The issue of religion in public life did not end with the Engle decision and others. With the swing toward conservative judges appointed by President Trump, the Supreme Court showed support for minimizing the impact of the Jeffersonian walls of separation. In three separate cases in 2022, the court supported a Washington state football coach who was suspended by the educational officials for leading a Christian prayer with the players after a game. Using the doctrine of free speech, the Justices stated that the coach was in his right as a citizen to lead a prayer after the game. Free speech would become the basis among the Court for supporting religious actions in public life. Also, in a case out of Maine, the Justices approved taxpayer money for transportation of rural students to attend religious schools, saying that the students would have no ability to attend school, even though the school was religious in nature. Finally, in Boston the Court struck down the decision by the city to remove a flag that had a Christian cross which was supported by a religious group seeking to present a diverse perspective. Again, free speech formed the basis for supporting the flag on public property. Currently, the trend supported by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is to link free speech with religious-based actions.

Americans remain a religious people, even though church attendance and self-descriptions of church membership are on the decline, as the younger generation opts to avoid linking their participation in public life to religious positions or affiliations. This movement toward a more secular society in some states, especially in key background states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, could play a role in the 2024 elections allowing the Democratic Party to solidify the victories it gained in the 2020 elections. Yet, in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas, there is strong support for ensuring that religious beliefs and practices remain part of public life. Rural support for religion in politics is often considered critical to the Republican Party and its goal of retaking the White House in 2024.

It is fair to state that religion and politics will continue to play an important role in American politics and that there will be more challenges to the separation of church and state despite Jefferson’s walls of separation. What was once a secure doctrine that kept politics and issues of governance out of the policy arena is now at the center of a national debate over whether the efforts of the Founders to ensure that religion would only be a private matter needs to be reexamined and perhaps reformed.