Protecting Religion with the First Amendment in the US

Table of contents

The introduction of religious passion into politics is the end of honest politics, and the introduction of politics into religion is the prostitution of true religion. – Lord Hailsham

Religion was the basis of American colonization and has since played a major role in the development of the country. The relationship between church and state, specifically the separation of church and state, causes Americans to view religious bodies as separate from the government, but as a protected right in the Constitution. In order to preserve such separation, it is necessary for the government to uphold and to protect the rights of citizens through the designation of a secular neutrality and to prevent one’s personal religious beliefs from being limited or impacted by the government (Audi 1989 259).

This separation prompts one to ask the question: how should the separation of church and state be enforced today? This paper focuses on the separation of church and state mandated by the The United States Constitution. It will examine the history of the relationship between the church and state and how this relationship has become the breeding ground for many controversies. Then, this paper will examine the controversies that emerge from the enforcement of the church and state, such as the role of the church within schools, religious freedom, anti-discrimination laws, and the moral implications of religion and how that affects policy-makers decisions. I argue that the church and state should be entirely separated but also completely protected and respected.

The American view on the separation of church and state is largely derived from the First Amendment and the words of Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s (Audi 1989 260). The First Amendment dictates, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (Dreisbach 2002 2). This amendment requires the protection of religion and the detachment between the American government and religious bodies.

Jefferson then proceeded to articulate this further in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association where he refers to the First Amendment as the creation of a “wall of separation between Church & State” (Dreisbach 2002 2). That is why The United States is one of the few nations without a federal or state-imposed religion (Dreisbach 2002 2). Regardless of the supposed wall, America struggled to define what the separation truly meant through the next two hundred years, causing issues condemned by the church to be forced into the forefront of politics (eg. drunkenness, slavery, marriage etc.). Many of these issues were eventually ruled on in a more secular fashion. For example, same-sex marriage was legalized in 2012 regardless of the opposition of many religious bodies.

The Supreme Court articulates the modern perception of separation in the late twentieth century through the words of Justice Black, he wrote “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion… Religion is too personal, too sacred, [and] too holy… Religion is also too powerful, too sinister, and too greedy to permit its unhindered pervasion of the civil magistrate” (Witte 2006 41). Many controversies lie in the inability of individuals to separate their own religious beliefs and the role of the state.

One major conflict regarding the church and state today is the role of religion in state-funded public schools. While the Supreme Court has largely shown that it is illegal to enforce public-school-sponsored prayer or religious indoctrination, it is still not uncommon to see religion in many public schools (ACLU 2018). One example of a religious presence in public school is the recent lawsuit regarding the Cole family in Louisiana.

Kaylee Cole’s school forced students to say the Lord’s Prayer every day in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance and frequently posted church-oriented propaganda around the Louisiana school (Simon 2018). The Cole family eventually sued the school and won (Simon 2018). For many areas of the United States, there’s no clear line where religion ends and the law begins because religion is so entwined with daily life (Simon 2018). However, the general consensus is that voluntary and private prayer is appropriate in public schools. Anything more forceful is unethical and in violation of the First Amendment (Anti-Defamation League 2018).

A topical issue regarding the separation of church and state is the distinction between religious freedom and discrimination. This is most explicitly shown by the Supreme Court Case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2018 (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission 2018). This case examined whether or not business owners can deny services, based on their First Amendment right of free exercise of religion, even when these beliefs largely discriminate against marginalized groups (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission 2018).

In this case, the owner refused to make a wedding cake for the marriage of a same-sex couple, on the basis of the his religious beliefs (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission 2018). The outcome of this case was the Masterpiece Cake Shop winning against the Civil Rights Commission. While this court case will not be used to deliberate on the wider issue of religious freedom and discrimination, it does show that in some cases, the right to exercise one’s religion outweighs the right for every citizen to have access to some services. The controversy here lies in the fact that some believe that religious freedom is more important than anti-discrimination laws in some cases and others believe that neglecting anti-discrimination laws is far more harmful than infringing on religious freedom (McArdle 2018).

The last major controversy related to the separation of church and state is the inability for politicians to set aside their personal religious views when making policy decisions. For example, President George W. Bush once recognized that religion provides a strong moral compass and in that context is a complementary force to the government (Edwards 2009). Forty-three out of forty-five presidents have publically practiced Christianity and as such their moral values, and also decision-making abilities, have been dictated in some ways by the religion they celebrate (Edwards 2009).

It is incredibly difficult to separate one’s religious views from one’s political ideology and as such the church has had some impact on politics today. While some consider this to be unjust, there is no clear solution regarding how to resolve the issue, as religion can be a personal and intimate part of one’s moral code. However, this morality was responsible for many politicians opposing controversial and religiously-charged issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Without such religious beliefs influencing politicians, these issues could have been resolved earlier and with more clarity.

All things considered, how should separation of church and state be enforced today? Personally, I believe that religion is important. I was raised in the Catholic and Presbyterian church and as such many of my values stem from such religious bodies. However, I think that for the sake of American citizens, religion should neither be a part of political doctrine nor have an impact on policy. The right to practice any religion, like free speech or the right to fair representation in a court of law, is an undeniable right that needs to be protected. However, no religious body should be endorsed or funded by the American government, as it clouds policy and impacts minority religious groups.

I believe the separation of church and state needs to be enforced as strictly as possible to avoid discrimination. What’s difficult about this issue is that Supreme Court decisions, such as in the “cakeshop case”, do follow the Constitution, in that the court ruled in favor of religious freedom, so as not to impede the ability for one to express their religion. However, I believe this case leaves many marginalized groups vulnerable to discrimination and I feel that is unacceptable. Religion may be more important on a personal level, but the government is more important for the people as a whole.

Works Cited

  1. Audi, Robert. “The Separation of Church and State and the Obligations of Citizenship.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 18, no. 3, 1989, pp. 259–296., doi:www.jstor.org/stable/2265345.
  2. Dreisbach, Daniel L. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State. New York University Press, 2003.
  3. Edwards, Mickey. “Religion and Democracy.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Dec. 2009, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/12/religion-and-democracy/31228/.
  4. Feldman, Stephen M. Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: a Critical History of the Separation of Church and State. New York University Press, 1997.
  5. “History and Origins of Church-State Separation.” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 2018, www.au.org/issues/history-and-origins-of-church-state-separation.
  6. John Witte; Facts and Fictions About the History of Separation of Church and State, Journal of Church and State, Volume 48, Issue 1, 1 January 2006, Pages 15–45, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcs/48.1.15
  7. “MASTERPIECE CAKESHOP, LTD., ET AL. v. COLORADO CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION ET AL. .” Supremecourt.gov, U.S. Government, 2018, www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-111_j4el.pdf.
  8. McArdle, Megan. “The Tension between Anti-Discrimination Laws and Freedom of Religion.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 June 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/06/06/the-tension-between-anti-discrimination-laws-and-freedom-of-religion/?utm_term=.fe5a2165c3bc.
  9. “Prayer in Public Schools.” Anti-Defamation League, www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/religion-in-public-schools/prayer.
  10. “Religion and Public Schools.” American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu, 2018, www.aclu.org/issues/religious-liberty/religion-and-public-schools.

Works Consulted

  1. Flax, Bill. “The True Meaning of Separation of Church and State.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 14 Mar. 2012, www.forbes.com/sites/billflax/2011/07/09/the-true-meaning-of-separation-of-church-and-state/#7e5502b65d02.
  2. Wells, Amy Stuart. Time to Choose: America at the Crossroads of School Choice Policy. Hill and Wang, 1993.
  3. “RELIGION AND PUBLIC SCHOOLS: PROMOTING MUTUAL RESPECT AND UNDERSTANDING.” Https://Www.nea.org, National Education Foundation, 2018, www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/boisi/pdf/bc_papers/BCP-ChurchState.pdf.
  4. “Separation of Church and State .” Https://Www.bc.edu, THE BOISI CENTER PAPERS ON RELIGION IN THE UNITED STATES , 2018, www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/boisi/pdf/bc_papers/BCP-ChurchState.pdf.

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