Separation of Church and State in America: A Short History
by Mister Zen
Copyleft 1992 - All Rites Reversed
This short work is in response to recent statements made on CultWatch
to the effect that:
a) The USA has no Constitutional Ammendment providing for the
separation of church and state.
b) The founding fathers did not intend for there to be such a
c) The USA was intended by the founding fathers to be a Christian
d) That the 1st Ammendment to the Constitution is absolute, in
that any attempt to make illegal prayer in schools is
I believe these statements to be erroneous, and am therefore
promulgating this thesis. I hope that it sheds some light on the
Since it would appear to be Christians who are putting forth the
aforementioned balderdash, I'd like to begin by quoting an authority
whom some may have respect for, who spoke on the separation of church
and state. His name was Jesus of Nazareth, and he has been quoted as
having said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to
God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17), which I believe indicates
a clear distinction being made between things secular and things
spiritual. It would appear, Christians, that your own founder [sic]
was in favor of keeping church and state separate!
In order to better understand why our founding fathers wished to
keep separate the functions of church and state, it would do to
take a close look at prevailing conditions in England prior to the
colonization of America.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the government attempted to declare
illegal and destroy any religion that did not adhere to standards
set forth by the official state church, the Church of England
(Anglican). This included Catholics and some Protestant faiths.
Puritans were prohibited from publishing their books and pamphlets.
A famous Puritan, John Milton, did succeed in publishing a protest
against the situation, the "Areopagitica."
Popular dissent against the restrictive laws led in part to the
English Civil War in 1642, which put the Puritans in power.
Apparently unable to learn their lesson after having been repressed
themselves, they promptly began oppressing the Catholics. Then came
Oliver Cromwell, who favored religious toleration. Following him
came the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, and he
instituted the Clarendon Code in 1661, which legalized persecution
of non-Anglicans. There was, again, a great deal of dissent over
this unpopular law, and following the Glorious Revolution in 1689,
William III and Mary II again permitted religious toleration.
One may note with irony that it was the many foibles and caprices
of the monarchy and government of England that led many of our
founding fathers to leave England for America in the first place.
However, once here, our worthy forefathers could not resist the
temptation to set up their own official religions, and to begin
persecuting those who were not members.
In Virginia in particular, the Church of England was the official
church. In 1758, there was a confrontation with angry Baptists and
Presbyterians, which led to the Anglican Church being removed as
the official church of Virginia in 1779.
In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason completed
the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, which legally separated
church and state, and established the principles which would later
be followed by the United States of America. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson
stated that his intention was to erect a "wall of separation between
church and state."
In the 1st Ammendment to the Constitution of the United States,
first penned by Madison in 1789, it was stated, in part, "Congress
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof...," which has been interpreted
by some to be absolute. However, such has not proven to be the case,
with the 1st Ammendment, or indeed, with any of the others. Congress
has passed many, many laws which have been deemed to be "in the
public interest" that have restricted the free practice of religion
in one form or another. The most innocuous of these are laws
requiring churches to conform to building and fire codes, as well
as sanitation laws. The IRS has assumed the role of determining
whether or not a religious group is indeed a church for purposes
of avoiding taxation.
The Supreme Court, since the earliest days of our government, has
consistantly determined that there are two parts to the 1st
Ammendment - the "free exercise" portion, and the "establishment"
portion. The Establishment Clause specifically prohibits any law
"respecting an establishment of religion," while the Free Exercise
Clause bans laws "prohibiting the free exercise of religion." These
two clauses are designed to protect the same basic value - the freedom
of every individual to worship (or not to worship) as he or she wishes,
without government interference. The Supreme Court has consistantly
held that the government may neither engage in nor compel religious
practices, that it effect no favoritism among sects or between religion
and non-religion, and that it work deterrence of no religious belief.
Now comes the tough part - the Supreme Court has had to walk a
tightrope since the earliest days of our government, balancing
the desire to leave religions alone to practice as they please
and the need to protect the legal, social and religious needs of
society as a whole. Examples of tough decisions abound. For example:
Reynolds v. United States, 1878 - Mormans claim religious
freedom to practice polygamy under the Free Exercise
West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943 - West Virginia
law requiring that students in public schools salute the flag
Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, 1930 - Public
schools may legally furnish secular textbooks for the use
of children in religious schools.
Everson v. Board of Education, 1947 - State reimbursement of
parent's money spent for public bus transportation of their
children to parochial schools does not constitute
"establishment of a religion."
McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948 - Public schools may
cooperate with churches for religious education of children,
but may not use public property or funds, and religion itself
may not be promoted.
Engel v. Vitale, 1962 - The Supreme Court struck down mandatory
prayer in public schools. A period of silence may be observed
during which children may pray if they wish, but the school
may not conduct devotional exercises, compose prayers, read
the bible, or otherwise enter the field of religious
Walz v. Tax Commission, 1970 - Traditional freedom from taxation
for churches upheld.
Cruz v. Beto, 1972 - Prisoners have the freedom to worship as
Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984 - Cities have the right to display
Nativity Scenes in public Christmas displays.
In the preceding text, I have attempted to show that the four
assertations mentioned herein are incorrect, and I believe that
I have acheived that goal. It should be obvious to even the most
casual reader that the USA does, indeed provide for the separation
of church and state in its Constitution. In addition, as quotes by
Thomas Jefferson would indicate, our founding fathers, the framers
of the Constitution, did most definately intend for there to be a
distinct and inviolate separation between church and state in our
country. Further, as the many divisions of Christian sects in both
England and America would indicate, it would have been impossible
for our forefathers to have intended for the USA to become a
"Christian" nation, as there was then, as there is now, no one
"Christian" religion - indeed, when the various factions and sects
are brought together in one place, they immediately attempt to
oppress each other. And finally, I have shown that the Supreme Court
has consistantly held, that although the 1st Ammendment is most
important and deserving of respect, it must be tempered (as all
laws must) by the needs of the people it serves. --Mister Zen---