Freedom of religion was established in the First Amendment to the Constitution along with other fundamentals rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom to the press, to guarantee an atmosphere of absolute religious liberty. Diverse faiths have flourished in America since the founding of the republic, largely because of the prohibition of government regulation or endorsement of religion. Traditions, holidays, and religious values free from government control form an integral part of our national culture. The wall separating church and state must be maintained to guarantee the continued vitality of religion in American life.
The phrase “separation of church and state” was first used by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to express the intent of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned about the power of the church in England. They felt that religious freedom in America would avoid the religious intolerance and the religiously-inspired bloodshed that had marked much of the history of Europe. A church-state separation was their best assurance that America would remain relatively free of interreligious disputes. The two centuries of relative religious peace in the U.S. have shown that they were right. In 1789, the first of ten amendments were written to the Federal Constitution; they are since known as the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment reads: “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.” This was ratified by the States in 1791. Although the term “church and state” is in near universal use throughout North America, it can still be confusing. The principle actually involves separation of religion, not just churches, from government. About 75% of the U.S. and Canadian populations consider themselves Christians. However, “religion” in the U.S. involves much more than Christian churches. Among the other churches, we find mosques, synagogues, temples, solitary practitioners of an organized religion, people who consider themselves religious but are not affiliated with any specific group, humanists, secularists,
Agnostics, Atheists, etc. All these people have specific religious beliefs. The separation of church and state ensures that private citizens, when acting in the role of some government official, cannot have any aspect of their private religious beliefs imposed upon others. School teachers cannot promote their religion to other people’s children. Local officials cannot require certain religious beliefs on the part of government employees.
Government leaders cannot make members of other religions feel like they are unwanted or are second-class citizens by using their position to promote particular religious beliefs. This requires moral self-restraint on the part of government officials, and even to a degree private citizens — a self-restraint which is necessary for a religiously pluralistic society to survive without descending into religious civil war. It ensures that the government remains the government of all citizens, not the government of one denomination or one religious tradition. The separation of church and state is a key constitutional liberty which protects the American public from the religious tyranny of any religious group or tradition. It protects all people from a government intent on tyrannizing some or any religious groups. Despite how well it has worked for churches, governments, and citizens over so many years, the idea of separating church and state continues to be controversial. The phrase “separation of church and state” does not actually appear anywhere in the Constitution.
There is a problem, however, in that some people draw incorrect conclusions from this fact. The absence of this phrase does not mean that it is an invalid concept or that it cannot be used as a legal or judicial principle. The most important thing to remember is that freedom of religion, if it is going to apply to everyone, also requires freedom from religion. You do not truly have the freedom to practice your religious beliefs if you are also required to adhere to any of the religious beliefs or rules of other religions. Religious freedom in America requires understanding the varying and often contradictory court decisions which have been made in this area. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Clinton, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores.
The RFRA was an attempt to give religious institutions the ability to ignore generally applicable laws, which secular organizations would have to continue adhering to. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Sherbert v. Verner that adherents of minority faiths cannot be disadvantaged by employers denying those minorities the same accommodations given to adherents of mainstream Christian churches. The best way for citizens to protect their constitutional right to be free from religious coercion is to become educated, and to educate others, about the separation of church and state. Local officials need to understand that they may not use their authority, government funds or government property to promote religion, even if the majority in the community approves. School administrators and teachers need to understand that public schools should teach the ideals of American democracy, not religious pedagogy.