One of the most controversial issues that have stirred countless debates over time is the separation of Church and State. Countries all over the world have opposing views on whether there is a real need to separate Church and State. What is interesting in the United States is the fact that federal laws and state laws have opposing views as well when it comes to a topic similar to this. Not an exception to this issue are the views and legal perspectives offered by the Washington Constitution, particularly Article I, Section 11, vis-a-vis the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In this paper, the author aims to highlight the controversy between these two statutes as they pertain to religion. To begin with, let us first take a quick review of what is embodied in the First Amendment. According to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion.
The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the “separation of church and state”. Some governmental activity related to religion has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. For example, providing bus transportation for parochial school students and the enforcement of “blue laws” is not prohibited. The free exercise clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a person’s practice of their religion.
On the other hand, Article I, Section 11 of the Washington Constitution provides that absolute freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment, belief and worship, shall be guaranteed to every individual, and no one shall be molested or disturbed in person or property on account of religion; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.
No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment: PROVIDED, HOWEVER, That this article shall not be so construed as to forbid the employment by the state of a chaplain for such of the state custodial, correctional, and mental institutions, or by a county’s or public hospital district’s hospital, health care facility, or hospice, as in the discretion of the legislature may seem justified.
No religious qualification shall be required for any public office or employment, nor shall any person be incompetent as a witness or juror, in consequence of his opinion on matters of religion, nor be questioned in any court of justice touching his religious belief to affect the weight of his testimony.
Legal studies would show that in many state constitutions, the provisions dealing with the relationship of church and state differ substantially from the federal establishment clause. As noted by Professor Alan Tarr during the symposium on State Constitutional Law, state constitutional provisions very often are ignored, apparently because practitioners mistakenly believe that state provisions merely repeat the strictures of the first amendment.