Separation of Church and State in the United States

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Alexa Dominguez

June 27, 2007

Research Paper

Prof. Mich Tadeusz

Separation of Church and State in the United States
Is the separation of church and state still necessary in the overall legal and social aspects of a modern society such as the United States? Research and history show that maintaining the church separate from the government is important for the ongoing success of a free and well functioning society.

Separation of church and state is a political and legal doctrine which states that government and religious institutions are to be kept separate and independent from one another. Ideally, the church should not influence the decisions made by rule of law and how a government functions. This idea refers to the secular state, which is understood as the combination of two principles, secularity of government and freedom of religious practice. Beliefs on the proper relationship between religion and government cover a wide spectrum. One ranging between complete secularization of government, and the other being a theocracy, in which government and church are unified under one central leadership. Along this line, a number of distinctions and issues are raised. The most primary is the division between the two distinct ideas of government secularization and church independence. In the United States, the "Separation of Church and State" is generally discussed as a political and legal principle derived from the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ." (Feldmen)


Early immigrants to the American colonies were motivated mainly by the desire to worship freely in their own way. These included a large number of nonconformists like the Puritans and the Pilgrims, as well as Catholics.

The phrase "separation of church and state" is derived from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a group identifying themselves as the Danbury Baptists. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes: “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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience. (Jefferson)

August 15, 1789 Madison wrote that he intended for the establishment clause to prevent Congress from requiring Americans to belong to any particular church or religion. The entry says: “Mr. Madison said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience....” (Williams)

These two critical writings by two founding fathers of the United States demonstrate their original intent when the new country was created. Therefore, it is evident that the foundation of our country is based on the principle liberties offered to its people.


After completing a study at Willamette University, Steven Keith Green, President of the College of Law said he believes the government should remain neutral on religious questions, leaving issues of God, faith and worship to be decided by individual citizens. “Separation of church and state is good for both religion and government,” he explained. “I believe strongly that government use of religion tends to degrade religion. The division of church and state provides protection to both institutions.” (Willamette University College of Law)

This study points out how the separation is beneficial for both of these complex institutions. Also, allowing the individual to make decisions on such a personal aspect, like religion, is where our nation is unique from others that do not value freedom of religion.

Another example comes from The Americans United for the Separation of Church and Sate foundation (AU), this group also feels that for our modern day societies to be as successful as possible religion and government should not be closely related. “Some uses of religion by government, such as “non-sectarian” prayers before government meetings, the use of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, may seem benign and even trivial to many. Others are offended by these practices. Government should refrain from endorsing religion even in a supposedly neutral manner. The state’s use of religion for ceremonial purposes often has the effect of draining religion of its meaning and power. This is not a healthy development for religion.” (Americans United for Separation of Church and State)

A clear distinction between religion and government may better protect people that want to practice religion in a society rather than discourage it. In order to not interfere with the rights granted by the first Amendment we should be mindful that all citizens share the same rights and liberties.

Another case that portrays the benefits of maintaining a separation between these institutions can been seen when we consider other countries. For example, terrible news comes in often from places such Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and other violent hot-spots where religion often intermingles with politics. Here in the U.S., a country founded on freedom of religion, there should be no influence on government from the church. “The U.S. founders' principles of no state religion and religious freedom introduced the world to the new idea of separation of church and state,” says Roger Finke, Penn State Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies. Historically, many governments had been closely tied to a state mandated religion. "What happens in the U.S. is viewed as a great experiment," says Finke. He also argues that the American model leads to a "free marketplace" of many religions, which promotes religious freedom for citizens. (Penn State)

This example shows how maintaining a separation between the church and state validates the principles that our country was founded by and is still successfully instituted today. In certain regions of the world such as the Middle-East, where many countries practice theocracy, religious extremism often leads to violence. The influence of the church over the government in these countries has in fact limited the freedoms of religion and spirituality.

The following is another instance of how separating the church and state is an effective way to minimize controversies between the two institutions. Legal historian John Witte, Jr. gave a lecture in March of 2005, titled “Facts and Fictions of Separation of Church and State: There is No Wall,” offered a historical overview of the American founders’ writings and Supreme Court decisions that have shaped the definition of separation of church and state. Witte stated five distinct understandings of church-state separation taught by the American founders that made important contributions to the protection of religious liberty in the 19th century and still apply today. Witte says the principle of separation was invoked by the founders to protect: the church from the state, the state from the church, the individual’s liberty of conscience from the intrusions of both church and state, individual states from interference by the federal government in governing local religious affairs, and society from unwelcome participation in and support for religion. (Emory University)

The five elements mentioned above are very clear and effective reasons why religion and government should not be associated. By having them separated, both the church and our government have protection against each other.

Spiritual Balance

Separatism does not mean exclusion of religion. While separation of church and state is the only principle that can ensure religious and philosophical freedom for all Americans, church-state separation does not mean hostility toward religion. Instead, it means that the government will remain neutral on religious questions, leaving decisions about God, faith and house of worship attendance in the hands of its citizens. Separatists’ do not want to eliminate religion from public life. The meaning of separatism is that people should have the freedom to act publicly on their religious beliefs without intimidation from the state. This would include the right to vote and run for public office in agreement with one's religious beliefs. More than anything, separatists are aware that religion has profoundly influenced the culture and morality of this nation, it is natural and proper that people would identify with that influence, and use it to order their lives. It is important and positive to have a society that encourages spirituality and the practice of religion.


In conclusion, our nation has had a long lasting democracy that is directly related to the fact it assures its people freedom to worship and practice religion. Instituting an official religion of the state would take away one of the freedoms that we, as Americans, are granted. Therefore, maintaining religion and government separate is ideal for a free and just society.

Works Cited
Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 23-25
Jefferson, Thomas (1802-01-01). Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists. U.S. Library of Congress. 7 June 2007.
"Religion in Public Life." Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 7 June 2007 .
"Defender of First Amendment." Willamette University College of Law. 7 June 2007 .
"Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered," The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume 1, page 108 (1644).
"Is the Separation of Church and State Possible?" Research Penn State. 25 June 2007 .
"Study of Law and Religion." Emory University. 25 June 2007 .

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