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Separation of church and state: fact or fiction?

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Charles Haynes
May 22, 2010

Not so very long ago, "separation of church and state" was as American as motherhood and apple pie. Despite perennial debates over the degree of separation, public support for the principle itself has been strong for much of our history.


But in today’s culture-war climate, the very mention of "separation of church and state" is enough to trigger a bitter argument over the relationship of government and religion in the United States.


Consider the current fight over the social studies curriculum in Texas. For months now the Democratic minority on the State Board of Education has been sparring with the Republican majority (mostly social conservatives) over what to teach students about the establishment clause of the First Amendment.


The board recently voted down a Democratic proposal calling for students to examine the reasons the Founding Fathers "protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others" — arguably the mildest possible definition of the "no establishment" mandated by the First Amendment.


A conservative member of the board wants instead for students to "contrast the Founders’ intent relative to the wording of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, with the popular term ‘Separation of church and state.’"


The tug-of-war in Texas over what students should learn about the First Amendment is the latest chapter in a decades-long crusade by some Christian conservatives to denigrate "separation of church and state" as an invention of the courts that ignores the intent of the Founders to create a Christian nation. The phrase, they argue, doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution.


While it’s true that the words "separation of church and state" are not in the First Amendment, the principle of separation is at the very heart of the establishment clause. By barring Congress from enacting any law that would have anything to do with an establishment of religion, the Founders clearly intended to keep the federal government, at least, out of the religion business. If that isn’t "separation," what is?


That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Founders agreed on the application of separation — any more than Americans agree about what separation should look like today. Some voted for the establishment clause to keep the federal government from interfering with state establishments (where, as in Massachusetts and Connecticut, state funds supported favored religious sects).


Others, including James Madison, the primary drafter of the Bill of Rights, supported full disestablishment on all levels of government, arguing that entanglement of church and state had been a leading source of persecution and coercion throughout history.


Madison settled for half a loaf in 1789, when Congress passed the First Amendment, although the church-state separation he argued for was accomplished in all states by 1833. His vision for religious freedom under the federal Constitution wasn’t fully realized until the 20th century when the Supreme Court applied the establishment clause to all levels of government through the 14th Amendment.


Ironically, many of the evangelical Christian opponents of separation in Texas today belong to religious groups that were once among the strongest defenders of a high and impregnable wall of separation between church and state. Protestant dissenters in Virginia, for example, were the ground forces in the successful political battle to pass Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786 — the first time in history a legislature voted to separate church from state.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Protestants waved the banner of church-state separation in their crusade to contain the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in America. As late as 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, felt compelled to travel to Houston to convince a roomful of Protestant ministers that he was fully committed to the "separation of church and state."


The story of Kennedy’s religious test is a reminder that the principle of church-state separation has a checkered history — a history that gives the establishment clause a bad name in some quarters.


Attacks on Catholics in the name of "separation of church and state" were unfair and unjust. And contemporary attempts to exclude religion from public life in the name of "separation" are also unfair and unjust.


But abuses of the principle, past and present, should not obscure the vital importance of church-state separation for religious freedom.


What students in Texas (and everywhere else) need to learn is that by separating church from state, the First Amendment protects the independence and integrity of both religion and government — thereby guaranteeing liberty of conscience for us all.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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