IFAS | Freedom Writer | March/April 2000 | wrong.html

Why D. James Kennedy is wrong about the separation of church and state

Although the words "separation of church and state" are not found in the text of the Constitution, the principle of separation of church and state is at the core of the First Amendment's provision for religious liberty. We know that the First Amendment provides us with religious liberty, yet, like the term "separation of church and state," the words "religious liberty" are also not found in the Constitution.

In the 17th century Roger Williams, the early Baptist leader and founder of Rhode Island, utilized the phrase "hedge of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636, as a democratically ruled colony with separation of church and state.

Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who is known as the father of the Constitution, utilized Williams' concept to explain the meaning of the religion clauses.

In 1802 Jefferson, who was serving as our third president, wrote a response to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, which contained his thoughts on religious liberty. In his letter, Jefferson declared that the American people, through the First Amendment had erected a "wall of separation between church and state". According to constitutional scholar Leo Pfeffer, the letter to the Danbury Baptist Association was well-researched and clearly thought out. Jefferson had his letter reviewed by his attorney general, Levi Lincoln. Jefferson told Levi Lincoln that he viewed the letter as a way of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets." Jefferson utilized the Danbury Baptists' letter as an opportunity to make clear his views on church and state.

Throughout the early 1800's, Madison also voiced his support for church/state separation. In an 1819 letter, Madison wrote: "The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state." In an earlier essay by Madison (early 1800's) wrote: "Strongly guarded . is separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States."

During the 1870's, the US Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution, utilized the phrase "separation of church and state" in the case of Reynolds v. United States (1878). In Reynolds, the Supreme Court upheld the application of a federal law, making bigamy a crime in the territories, to a Mormon claiming polygamy was his religious duty.

The Court's opinion stated: " I contemplate with .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." The Court further stated that Jefferson's term 'wall of separation between church and state' may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment."

The term "separation of church and state" means more than the absence of a state church; instead the principle serves to prevent one institution from supporting and controlling the other. Rather than being anti-religious, the separation of church and state is essential for religious liberty and the growth of religious communities. It is because of church/ state separation that religion has flourished in the United States. In addition to spawning over 300 denominations of Christianity, the United States has been the birthplace of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventists, and a host of other religions.

The separation of church and state ensures the autonomy of religion, while it acts as a check on possible governmental overreaching into the rights of conscience. It assures that no citizen be forced to attend religious services of any kind, or support any religion. Separation of church and state does not mean the removal of religious influences in our society; instead it means a secular government that is truly neutral on religious matters.

Posting of the Ten Commandments

Recently there has been a groundswell by politicians to have the Ten Commandments posted in public school classrooms. New York City's Mayor Guiliani says public schools should be free to post the Ten Commandments even though it's illegal. The Mayor, who was educated in Catholic parochial schools and was once a First Amendment lawyer, added that the posting of the Ten Commandments would not be required. It's surprising that the chief executive of the city of New York, a law-and-order mayor is advocating lawlessness.

In 1980 the Court addressed the issue of the posting of the Ten Commandments. It struck down a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments, purchased with private contributions. The Court noted that the Ten Commandments may be integrated into the public school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like. Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function."

© 2000 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.