The separation of church/religion and state is the principle that the government must maintain an attitude of neutrality toward religion. In the United States, this is enforced through the First Amendment, ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, that affords citizens the freedom to practice any religion they choose and also prevents the state from officially recognizing or favoring any religion. The relevant line reads,
“… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced … in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
This act affirms that no citizen is to be forced to embrace any specific religion. In other words, a law that would require all citizens to go to church would be unlawful. The act also affirms the right to practice any faith or to have no faith. The separation of religion and state has been part of the United States’ legal and cultural status for the last two centuries.
The Minimalist and Strict Views of Separation of Church and State
There are two major views of the separation of church and state: the minimalist and strict views.
On a minimalist view of church-state separation, religious bodies have no official status or formal role in the government. Religious institutions and the government act independently of each other and the government is not allowed to directly finance religious activities. The government is also not allowed to coerce actions either on behalf of or against religion.
Beyond these prohibitions, however, the government has room to interact with religion. It may, for instance, acknowledge religious traditions and customs, and utilize religious symbols and discourse in ecumenical ways. There is room for prayers in legislative halls or on public school sports fields. Separationism here is first and foremost about ensuring the independence of religious institutions such as in preventing civil courts from ruling on internal church disputes and giving religious institutions broad discretion over employment matters. The goal is to minimize government interference with religious actions and choices.
The strict view of church-state separation ensures that all government functions remain secular. The government has nothing to do with religion. It may not support religious institutions financially or otherwise or use religious means to accomplish public policy. The government is prohibited from financing religious schools and charities, using religious symbols and discourses, and so on. This strict view has been a strong view of the Supreme Court which has removed prayer and Bible reading in public schools and struck the government’s display of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols.
Criticism of the Separation of Church and State
The separation of church and state has been divisive. One of the main arguments made by anti-separationist critics is that the separationist perspective imposes a regime of secularism. The policy is not neutral regarding religion and tends to both privatize and marginalize religion (1). The separation of church and state thus oppresses religion; it is thoroughly an atheistic idea. One need only look at North Korea and Communist China to see how secularism there has oppressed religion.
But supporters for the separation of church and state have responded to these arguments and provided some of their own concerns.
Regarding concerns, supporters of the separation of church and state believe that religion should be kept out of politics because of historical abuses that could be repeated. Historically, the Church, despite its pacifist stance in its first three centuries of existence, has wielded its power to achieve various immoral ends; these include the subjugation and oppression of pagans and heretics, the institution of religious and economic restrictions on Jews, the abolishment of personal freedom, and justification of violence through holy war and slavery, and more. The same charge can be leveled at other religions, like Islam for example.
On the claim that the United States is a Christian nation, critics point to the fact that the country is neither legally nor constitutionally Christian. Indeed Christianity is still the dominant religion in the United States, but the country is not a theocracy or a Christian theocracy in particular. Further, the Constitution does not privilege any religion; rather, it protects all religions and the right of other American citizens to claim no religious beliefs at all.
What about concerns over God being kicked out of public schools? Many claim this concern to be overstated. It is only state-sponsored religion that has been banned from public schools. Voluntary student religious expression is afforded and protected, as long as it respects other students’ rights not to participate. Many religious activities are allowed at public schools which can include voluntary prayer, teaching about religion, religious clubs that take place before and after school, wearing religious attire, and so on.
Further, supporters of the separation of Church and state argue that it is incorrect to say that God has been banished from the public square. For example, the separation of Church and state does not mean that people have been stripped of the right to speak about religion in public or share their religious ideas. The policy only requires that government does not pass laws that have the primary purpose of advancing religion.
Religion is indeed permitted in the public as demonstrated in its broad expression across various media including advertisements, radio, the internet, television, magazines, newspapers, novels, and so on. In addition, to compare the United States’ policy on the separation of Church and state to a Communist government like North Korea is disingenuous. North Korea deliberately oppresses religion because the state supports a cult ideology that cannot tolerate competing religious ideologies. Nothing like that exists in the United States or in other functioning democratic nations.
The separation of Church and state ensures that diversity is respected. For the government to promote the symbols of one religion is to disrespect persons who do not accept that religion. This is why various groups, such as the American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, keep watch to ensure that separation is ensured. In the words of a lawyer at the American Humanist Association, for the government to promote the dominant Christian religion is to send a “strong stigmatizing message to the non-Christians that they are second-class citizens and unwelcome in the community. This dynamic is especially troublesome in the public schools, where students are subject to peer pressure and bullying. Many atheist families choose to “stay in the closet” to protect their children” (2).
There have been various controversies over displaying the Christian cross on government property because it is a religious symbol that represents Christians. This gives the impression that the government is endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of all other religions. It is also why almost all cases involving a government cross display have been found unconstitutional.
1. Carter, Stephen L. 1993. The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. New York: Basic Books.
2. Zuckerman, Phil. 2017. Fighting for the Separation of Church and State An interview with Monica Miller. Available.