The Issue of Separation of Church and State
This essay is an extension of a blog post. The blog post discusses the possibility of being segregated against in job selection based off ones religion. This is one example of why the founding fathers believed church and state needed to be separate.
The United States of America is considered to be the “melting pot” of the world by many. This relates to the large diversity that is flowing though America. The “melting pot” being the diverse amounts of race, social views, political views, and religion. Religion is a specifically interesting topic because it dates all the way back to before America was even discovered by Europeans. At the time of the European discovery and conquest of the “New World” there were several religious problems going on in the world. Martin Luther had just posted his ninety-five thesis critiquing the Holy Roman Empire on its actions towards its followers. This was considered to be the start of the protestant reformation. The Catholic Church also has issues with England. King Henry VIII needed an heir to the throne. His wife didn’t seem to be able to produce a child for him so he wanted a divorce from her. When the pope would not grant King Henry VIII a divorce due to some legal complications with other countries, King Henry decided to split form the Catholic Church and create the Church of England. With of the religious problems developing in respective nations, this created religious problems in each empires respective colonization in the Americas. Each established colony had its religious differences. The religious differences in each colony helped to create a background for each colony that was established, helping potential immigrants to flood into a colony based off their religious preferences.
Each colony had its tolerance for different set of religious ideals and beliefs. William Penn had created the colony of Pennsylvania in order to promote religious tolerance for his Quaker religion. Rodger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were both exposed and frowned upon for their views on the church. Each expressed problems with the church. Maryland became the first colony established in America as a catholic colony. In Maryland they also established the Maryland Toleration Act which defined certain tolerations and variations of accepted Christianity. The Maryland Toleration Act can potentially be viewed as an aid in the creation of the first amendment. Puritans established themselves in the New England colonies. Readdressing Rodger Williams, he was banned for the New England colonies for his views on the separation of church and state. Purtain leaders had thought that he idea of church and state being separate as extremely dangerous. As shown above in the essay, the New World was filled with plenty of different religions and views of the church concerning its roles with society. Upon declaring independence from England, the founding fathers of the new nation realized that with a set religion put into place conflict will occur. After scraping the Articles of Confederation for its lack of a strong central government, the founding fathers now had to develop a brand new Constitution (Harris/Kidd, 78). With many conflicts between smaller and larger states upon drawing up the constitution, Benjamin Franklin requested that a prayer be said to help aid the founding fathers in their decision making. (Harris/Kidd, 78). Alexander Hamilton dismissed Franklin’s request, stating that there was no need for a foreign presence in the decision making process (Harris/Kidd, 78). While our new government is being set up, this is the first example of separation of church and state we see. Ultimately the government creates the new constitution with an attached Bill of Rights containing the first ten basic rights that cannot be taken away from any citizen of the nation. The first amendment address’s the religious stand and contains “The Establishment Clause” and “The Free Exercise Clause” which together form the “Religious Clauses.” (Constitution) The exact words as view in the Constitution are viewed as followed
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (Constitution).
These clauses were put into place in order to prevent potential conflicts between citizens or government about religion. However, as to be expected, not all conflict about religion can be totally avoided.
We still run into problems in America today relating to the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. Specific problems encountered today include, but are not limited to, prayer in public schools or at public school functions, religious displays on government property, and teaching of creationism as part of a science curriculum.
The first issues with prayer in public school occurred in 1962 in a monumental court case Engel vs. Vitale. This court case was brought to the Supreme Court because families believed that schools should not have the right to have an official school prayer. If the official school prayer discredited or went against other religions this violated a student’s First Amendment rights. The court ruled against an official school prayer. Since this court case, the U.S. Department of Education has taken over the issue of religion in public schools. The U.S. Department of Education states:
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit purely private religious speech by students. Students therefore have the same right to engage in individual or group player and religious discussion during the school day as they as they do to engage in other comparable activity (Griffith, 624).
The U.S. Department of Education allows students or groups of students to participate in religious activities as long as to not cause large distractions or interfere with other student’s ability to do the same (Griffith, 624-625). The founding father would have appreciated this ruling by the Supreme Court and piece of legislation put into effect by the U.S. Department of Education. Thomas Jefferson kept his religious views quiet for most of his life, many believe he did this as to not affect his political career (Harris/Kidd 157-158). Later in his life however, a note was written to his nephew where he tells him to view the bible more as a historical text than a religious book (Harris/Kidd 159). Putting an official school prayer into place would have gone against Jefferson’s idea that the Bible should be viewed as a historical text rather than a book of religion. John Adams shares similar views as Jefferson in regards to religion. Both question certain parts of the bible and the creation of Jesus Christ (Harris/Kidd 162). Through closer examinations of Founding Fathers views, we can see that they would have believed “The Establishment Clause” and “The Free Exercise” clause helped solve a social issue in a way they would have liked.
The display of religious items raised to a national level in 1984 in the game-changing court case of Lynch vs. Donnelly. In this famous court case, citizens argued that local governments should not be allowed to display religious items on government owned property. In this instance it was Christmas decorations. The court ruled that the town was allowed to keep the Christmas decorations up because they were not forcing others to take a certain view of a religion, or imposing on others abilities to celebrate their own religion. This case is similar to forced prayer in public school. The idea of forced religion views in public places or areas. Therefore, we know how Jefferson and Franklin would have most likely viewed this issue and how to resolve it. Thomas Paine’s views, famous author of the pamphlet “Common Sense,” maybe viewed a little differently (Harris/Kidd 170). Paine expresses his problems with all the major religions:
Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to god was not open to every man alike (Harris/Kidd 170-171).
Paine would have most likely disagreed with the decision made by the Supreme Court to allow the decorations to stay up. This can be concluded from his pure disgusted expressed in rest of his treatise “The Age of Reason” (Harris/Kidd 169-171).
A pattern is shown with issues of separation of church and state. The main issue is how to address religious views and teaching in places of government controlled areas. The teaching of Creationism is no different than others. Public schools job is to teach kids on a wide variety of subjects as to prepare them for the “real world.” The two main viewpoints that can be taught in the United States when discussing how humans came to be are creationism and evolution. Creationism being that god created the planet along with all its inhabitants. Evolution being the “Big-Bang” theory starting our world with very small organisms that developed over time. There are issues that arise with teaching both ideas. If you teach creationism then you are contradicting certain religions including atheists, but you are meeting the needs of the religions that believe in the creation of the earth in this way. However, if you teach evolution it is the exact opposite and you are still distrusting certain groups of people and promoting others ideals. The Founding Fathers would have had split views of the teachings of creationism in public schools. Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams would have very strongly expressed their issues regarding this topic. Both believed that in the post-revolutionary time period the teaching of non-Christian ways was putting the liberty of the nation in jeopardy (Harris/Kidd 171-176). Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry are considered to be the “forefront of the independence movement from England” (Harris/Kidd 171). Their views on religion are very different though (Harris/Kidd 171-173). Henry believed that Paine’s turning on Christianity was a betrayal of the ideals behind the revolution. (Harris/Kidd 171.) Samuel Adams (cousin to John Adams) believed that the new nation’s ideals would be based off of that of the Christian ideals (Harris/Kidd 173.) Expressing his fear of a non-Christian based nation:
Signs that the people might be turning away from faith and virtue, for Adams, heralded danger to liberty. Liberty must be channeled toward benevolent purposes, he believed, or risked becoming an excuse for immoral chaos (Harris/Kidd 173).
S. Adams and Henry both express the need for the nation to be Christian based, therefore we can conclude that they would believe the need to teach creationism in public schools in order to promote the general welfare.
There is a strong need for church and state to be separate. If we as a nation choose to not learn from history there is no point in studying it. By intertwining religion and state we saw many conflicts arise in the pre-colonial era. Ultimately that caused wars, and emigration from home countries. Separation of church and state does not restrict one citizen from their beliefs even if they differ from that of another citizen, or even the majority. This helps to create more social order. Religious issues cannot come into conflict as much when dealing with strict interpretations of breaking the law. The separation of church and state also allows others to still believe their religion is superior. For example, if a Christian believes that all non-Christians are going to dissent to hell, they have the right to do so without causing harm on the nation or other individuals. Without the separation of church and state, our nation would be in constant chaos and always be vulnerable to changes in power.
The separation of church and state dates all the way back to pre-revolutionary period due to social issues with monarchs their ruling strictly based on one religion. When drafting up the new Constitution, the founding fathers all had different views on religion. The came up with “The Establishment” and “Free Exercise” clauses in order to avoid similar chaos in the new nation. Although the founding fathers may have all interpreted current issues regarding separation in different ways, the “Establishment Clause” ultimately has done its job, preventing wars and major social issues regarding public religion.