Separation of Church and State - the American Myth

Separation of Church and State - The American Myth

The first amendment of the American Constitution provides for a pluralist religious society and protection against laws that prohibit religious practices. However, numberless Supreme Court cases indicate that there are limits to the free exercise clause and throughout American history, religious practices seem to be limited to the acceptance of the practice under accepted social mores. Many religious observances have been prohibited by the courts that, if read literally, the first amendment should protect and allow.

While the challenge of summarizing the effects of church-state relations in America is no small task, it is possible to identify many of the elements collected from history that advanced religious freedom in America. First, the American population consisted of a mix of religions, cultures, languages, and classes. Each religious group believed their ways were the right ways and they exhibited little toleration for others, making an agreement on one established church impossible. Second, what these groups did have in common was their search for freedom to practice their beliefs without persecution, their search for wealth, and a better life with more opportunities than they had in their home countries, which led to the desire for survival and a growing love for democracy. Building on these commonalities and with an understanding of the effect of church-state unions in Europe, the founders were able to formulate a strong central government that promoted human rights and religious freedom.

“The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and work of the Supreme Court have shaped the relations between government and religion in this country.” Before delving too deeply into specific Supreme Court cases that tested the elasticity of the Free Exercise clause, an understanding of the origination, intention, and continued use of the phrase “wall of separation” is essential to understanding the debate over church-state relations that extend into the present day. The original intent of the founding fathers has long held a place center stage in debates over constitutionality, especially as it pertains to the first amendment and religious practices.

European models of church-state entanglement were entrenched in what the colonists knew about government. Religious tolerance was a new phenomenon and did not have the historical experience of state established churches supported or run by the government. However, the ideas disseminated throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods provided avenues that permitted reconsideration of traditional forms of thought and ways of doing things. These were ideas in which the colonists and founding fathers were well versed. They were ideas that were held in high esteem and shaped much of the thinking of the men that would draft, and later, ratify the oldest living governing document known to the world.

Most of the colonies formed in the New World supported one of the major state churches from Europe and, therefore, set up their individual colonies based on the beliefs and teachings of the church they supported – Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, and the like. Only four of the colonies – Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware – offered religious freedom, although atheism was still unaccepted. Throughout this early period, only those of one of the many Christian denominations resettling in America would expect to be able to practice their faith according to their own consciences.

Rhode Island, established by Roger Williams in 1636, led the way for religious tolerance and eventually religious freedom in the United States. Then, in 1779, Thomas Jefferson authored The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which promoted “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” This document, along with James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” formed the foundation for...
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