Separation of Church and State: A First Amendment Primer

Reference: Anti-Defamation League

Separation: Good for Government, Good for Religion

The right to freedom of religion is so central to American democracy that it was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution along with other fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

In order to guarantee an atmosphere of absolute religious liberty, this country’s founders also mandated the strict separation of church and state. Largely because of this prohibition against government regulation or endorsement of religion, diverse faiths have flourished and thrived in America since the founding of the republic. Indeed, James Madison, the father of the United States Constitution, once observed that “the [religious] devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.”

Americans are still among the most religious people in the world. Yet the government plays almost no role in promoting, endorsing or funding religious institutions or religious beliefs. Free from government control — and without government assistance — religious values, literature, traditions and holidays permeate the lives of our citizens and, in their diverse ways, form an integral part of our national culture. By maintaining the wall separating church and state, we can guarantee the continued vitality of religion in American life.

Violations of the Separation of Church and State

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black best expressed the purpose and function of the Establishment Clause when he said that it rests “on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.” Some Americans reject this dictum, promoting the idea that the government should endorse the religious values of certain members of the community to the exclusion of others. In fact, such violations of the separation of church and state take place with disturbing frequency in American government, at local, state and Federal levels. Recent incidents include the following:

  • An Alabama judge regularly opens his court sessions with a Christian prayer. Further, he has refused to remove a plaque containing the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. Alabama Governor Fob James has threatened to call in the Alabama National Guard to prevent the plaque’s removal.
  • Local municipalities have erected nativity scenes, crosses, menorahs and other religious symbols to the exclusion of those of other faiths.
  • The Board of Aldermen of a Connecticut city has opened its sessions with a prayer that beseeches citizens to “elect Christian men and women to office so that those who serve will be accountable . . . to the teachings of Jesus Christ . . . .”
  • A variety of religious groups are demanding that their faith-based social service programs receive public funding although these programs engage in aggressive proselytizing and religious indoctrination.
  • On the “National Day of Prayer,” local authorities acting in their official capacities have led citizens in sectarian prayer.