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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
PO Box 210005 . Nashville TN 37221


Church-State Separation is Well-Established in Laws
written by Charles Sumner

Tennessee Voices

2008 was the 60th anniversary of the monumental McCollum decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that public schools may not be used by religious groups to indoctrinate.

But the significance is much broader. It applied the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the establishment clause of the First Amendment as it applied to public schools.

This "doctrine of incorporation" means that the wording of the First Amendment now means more than it did when ratified. It means that not only Congress, but no state or local government, may promote religion.

What we hear frequently from people is that separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. We also hear, as I did recently at Legislative Plaza, that the First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law..." Those who say these things are either ignorant of our constitutional government, or (more likely) people who are opposed to what the law states � and some of these are working toward some sort of theocratic government.

The words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the Constitution. However, the concept certainly does when you consider the religion clauses of the First Amendment and the interpretations of the Constitution (made under the authority of the Constitution.)

The meaning of the First Amendment was dealt with in a Supreme Court case in 1879, when the court accepted Thomas Jefferson's definition of it as given in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists.

Then, in the 1940s, the doctrine of incorporation was applied to First Amendment cases.

The Constitution, as originally written, is no longer the same as it was when adopted.

Women and people who are not landowners have the right to vote; slavery has been abolished; the people elect senators. The 14th Amendment has been in effect since 1868, even though not applied fully to the religion clauses until the 1940s.

Article VI (no religious test for public office) is embodied in the original Constitution, and it gives evidence of the intent of the Founders. It is sad that in Tennessee no legislator has the guts to sponsor a bill that would remove from the Tennessee Constitution Article IX, Section 2, which (contrary to the federal Constitution) states that "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

There is also Section 1, which says no priest or minister may be a Tennessee legislator. I have had students who think that these are still in effect. How does one justify this when one considers the words of Jefferson that religious liberty must encompass "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination?"

Legislators are willing to sponsor changes to limit a woman's right to obtain proper reproductive medical treatment when her life or health may depend upon it but not to eliminate antiquated sections.

The McCollum decision and three others of the high court, starting in 1947, concluded: "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.' " So separation of church and state is firmly entrenched and has been made part of constitutional law.

Decisions now only decide where that wall lies. That is not an easy task. For further information about this American principle, see our Web site:

Charles Sumner is a member of the National Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is also co-author of a series of historical articles on religious liberty which appeared in the Nashville Free Press.

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