Does the Constitution separate Church and State?

Posted By Levi

January 25th, 2012 8:05pm

On a recent campaign stop, The Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, told the following story:

“I was in a town hall meeting in Hollis, in New Hampshire the other day, and a young man got up and started going after me, talking about the Constitutional separation of Church and state,” Santorum said. “And I asked him where it was in the Constitution, and he insisted it was in there. That’s the kind of, really, indoctrination that’s going on in our country, as to the role of faith in public life.”

Of course, Santorum, like so many conseravtive Christians, does not believe in the separation  of church and state.

It is true that that the actual phase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the actual text of the Constitution. But almost all constitutional scholars agree that it is implicit in the First Amendment which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

The meaning of the Amendment is clear – the government cannot make any law that establishes, supports or promotes any religion or even one Christian sect over another. By prohibiting the government from doing these things, the Constitution creates a wall of separation between religion and the government.

Not because the actual phrase is not in the Constitution doesn’t mean the principle doesn’t exist. We practice many Constitutional principles even though these principles are not written in the Constitution. For example, the phrase “separation of powers” is not in the Constitution. But the principle exists because the Constitution sets up a government made up of three branches and separates power between them.

Similarly, you will not find the words “fair trial” in the Constitution yet the right of an acussed person to a fair trial is a fundamental principle of our government.

So where did the phrase “separation of church and state” come from?

Historians traced the first use of the phrase to a letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut.  The Congregational Church was the established church in Connecticut. All citizens were expected to pay a special tax to support the church. The Baptists believed that this was a violation of the First Amendment which prevents the government from supporting a religion and wrote to Jefferson seeking clarification.

Jefferson sent the following reply:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson made it clear that the matter of religion is solely between the individual and his God. He then reassured the Baptists that the First Amendment does in fact set up a wall of separation between church and state. At the time he wrote the letter, Jefferson was under fire from the religious conservatives of his day who hated his strong stand for full religious liberty. He then used the occasion to clarify his position on church and state.

On several occasions, the United States Supreme Court accepted Jefferson’s views on church state relations. In the Court’s 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.”

Besides, Jefferson was not the only one who used the term separation of church state. James Madison, considered to be the Father of the Constitution, said in an 1819 letter,

“[T]he number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state.”

So, the framers of the Constitution were clear on what they were doing. They were well aware of the amount of blood that was spilled in Europe’s endles wars, many of which were fought over whose God was the true god. The founders believed that the best way to keep religious peace in the new nation was to keep them all out of the government.

So, yes the Constitution does establish a wall of separation between church and state. Remove this wall and you are likely to end up with a theocracy. It is frightening that so many people in our country want to overturn this long cherished principle.

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