separation of church and state

separation of church and state
   The Bill of Rights became part of the United states Constitution on December 15, 1791, including its famous First Amendment statement, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." A decade later, on January 1, 1802, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, President Thomas Jefferson penned his commentary to that phrase in which he introduced a metaphor explaining the intent of the First Amendment. Thus Jefferson, the author of the amendment, injected the idea of separation of church and state into the political discourse of the nation, the Christian West, and more recently the world community. Following the lead of Congress, all the states added phrases similar to the First Amendment to their constitutions.
   In the United States, "separation of church and state" has been embodied not primarily in legislation, but in opinions of the Supreme Court. Among the Court's more famous rulings in this area was the 1947 case known as Everson v. Board of Education, in which the Court declared, "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach."
   Over the years, various practices that some believed had breached the wall of separation were found acceptable by the Court (chaplains in the military and legislative bodies) and some not (government-funded census of religious groups). Over the years, Court cases have dealt with issues of religious proselytizing in various public settings (such as street corners, airports, and public schools), the funding of religiously sponsored universities with government research grants, government funding of parochial schools, and most recently, government funding of religious organizations to carry out charitable activities. in the 1950s, Congress added the phrase "under God" to the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
   In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court handed down several rulings concerning prayers in public elementary and secondary schools. In most states, at the beginning of the day, classes held exercises that usually included a reading from the Bible, a brief prayer, and the pledge of allegiance to the flag. These rulings, most important in the cases of Engle v. Vitale and Abington Township School District v. Schempp, suggested that such prayers (and by implication, Bible readings) were not consistent with the First Amendment. State-sponsored religious exercises amounted to an establishment of religion, it decided, particularly in public schools, where the audience was required to attend.
   These rulings angered many conservative Protestant Christians who had grown up with the practice. They opined that the Supreme Court had kicked God out of the public school. They were further angered by subsequent decisions that challenged public displays of religious symbols (crosses in public parks, Christian displays on government property, religious symbols in government emblems). Some conservative Christians began to question the whole idea of the separation of church and state, which had been a bedrock belief of most American Protestants.
   American Christian arguments against the separation of church and state are generally based on the nonappearance of the phrase in legislative acts. Opponents charge the Supreme Court with making laws, thus breaching the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of the government, an integral feature of American constitutional law. They also affirm that the United States was founded as a Christian country, and that the government was founded on Christian principles. Furthermore, in the post-World War II era, for the first time the majority of United States citizens were church members.
   This opinion has been challenged by the emergent humanist and atheist communities, who argue that America is a secular nation and that the government should have nothing to do with religion, a form of separation popular in countries where the government has been somewhat hostile toward religion. In the case of France and China, for example, laws were passed to keep religion from interfering with government. In the United States and the countries affected by the American legal heritage, on the other hand, the issue has historically been the reverse, a desire to keep government from interfering with religion. That different perspective has allowed a friendliness between the government and religious communities in the United States, which has led to repeated attempts to define the boundaries.
   A new factor in recent decades is the emergence of Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities among new immigrants, the first significant non-Christian religious communities other than Judaism.
   Further reading:
   ■ Tricia Andryszewski, School Prayer: A History of the Debate (Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1997)
   ■ David Barton, America: To Pray or Not to Pray (Aledo, Tex.: Specialty Research Associates, 1994)
   ■ Philip Hamburger, The Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002)
   ■ John T. Noonan, The Believer and the Powers That Are: Cases, History, and Other Data Bearing on the Relation of Religion and Government (New York: Macmillan, 1987)
   ■ Mary Segars and Ted Jelen, A Wall of Separation (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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