Frequently Asked Questions: Church and State
1) What is religious freedom?
Religious freedom means that every person is free to make his or her own decisions about religion�to affirm, embrace and practice a faith or to reject them all as a matter of conscience and conviction. In the United States, every person is free to express his or her religion publicly, so long as that expression does not compromise another person's freedom.
2) What does the U.S. Constitution say about religious freedom?
The First Amendment's religious liberty provisions state, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This language protects religious freedom in two ways: It prevents government from imposing religion on anyone and also protects all Americans' right to embrace a religious tradition or follow no spiritual path at all. In addition, Article VI of the Constitution protects religious liberty by banning "religious tests" for public office � the idea that a person has to believe certain things about religion before being permitted to hold federal office.
3) Has religious freedom always existed in America?
No�certainly not in the sense that we now understand it. Most of the colonies had an official or established church, and some of the colonies banned believers in other faiths from even entering their territory. Even those colonies that tolerated dissenters usually required that dissenters pay taxes to support the established church and prohibited them from voting or holding public office. These conditions persisted through the American Revolution.
4) Why do people call religious freedom America's first freedom?
Religious freedom is called our first freedom because it is listed first in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (That amendment also protects freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition.)
5) Where does the phrase "separation of church and state" come from and what does it have to do with religious freedom?
President Thomas Jefferson used the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" in an 1802 letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists to describe the reach of the First Amendment. The metaphor caught on because it is such a cogent summation of the scope and effect of the First Amendment's religious liberty provisions. But Jefferson was not the only founder to use a phrase such as that. James Madison, recognized as the Father of the Constitution and one of the drafters of the First Amendment, used similar language. Madison once spoke of the value of the "total separation of the church from the state" in his home state of Virginia. Our nation's founders knew firsthand that entanglement between the institutions of religion and government spelled trouble for both religion and government. They understood that Americans would not be truly free if they were forced to support religion against their will.
6) Why is this issue important?
Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Without it, a society is not truly free. At stake in the fate of religious freedom is nothing less than the success or failure of democracy as envisioned and described in the U.S. Constitution and experienced by all citizens.
7) Does the First Amendment guarantee only freedom for religion or does it also guarantee freedom from religion?
The Constitution's First Amendment protects both. The Framers of the Constitution understood the importance of freedom and sought for Americans to have choice in matters of theology. This includes the right to reject them all. Thomas Jefferson once noted that his pioneering Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, considered a great influence on the First Amendment, offered protection to "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."
8) Does separation of church and state mean that religious beliefs and values should have no role in or influence on politics or government?
No � only that religious groups have no right to expect the government to enforce their theology. Certainly, it is to be expected that individuals will bring to their involvement in government beliefs and values nurtured by their religions or their non-religious ideologies. But our courts have held that laws must be written with a non-religious purpose; laws that have the primary effect of promoting religion will likely be struck down by the courts.
9) Isn't America a Christian nation?
Certainly many Christians live in the United States right now. But this fact does not make the nation officially "Christian." The U.S. Constitution extends no special treatment to Christianity. In fact, that religion is not mentioned anywhere in that document, which separates religion and government. Lacking support for their views in the Constitution, advocates of the "Christian nation" concept cherry-pick quotations from various historical figures and distort history to defend their claim. Not only is the claim that America is a Christian nation historically inaccurate, it is also, from some Christian perspectives, a theological heresy.
10) Weren't our Founding Fathers deeply religious men?
The founders held various views about religion. Some were devout Christians, but others were less so. For example, Thomas Jefferson expressed deistic views and was skeptical of core Christian doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. American society was not uniformly religious at this time, and many people, like Jefferson, were influenced by Enlightenment ideas. In fact, at the time of the Revolution only 10 to 15 percent of the people belonged to any church.
11) Do the religion clauses of the First Amendment still apply only to the federal government?
Not anymore. Initially the First Amendment provided protections only against the federal government�that is, whereas the federal government could not establish a church or pass laws restricting one's religious practice, state governments could. But through the legal doctrine of "incorporation," the First Amendment's provisions were extended to state and local governments as well.
12) What exactly is the doctrine of incorporation?
This legal doctrine states that the guarantees of liberty found in the Bill of Rights apply not only to the federal government but to state and local governments as well through the Fourteenth Amendment. Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment declares that the states may not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The court has held that the protections extended under the Bill of Rights are central to our understanding of liberty and therefore "fundamental" to the states' guarantee of liberty as well.
13) Can the government infringe on religious belief in any way?
Americans have the right to believe whatever they want about religion, but actions based on those beliefs can be curbed if they threaten public safety or violate otherwise generally applicable laws. For example, in most states it is illegal to handle poisonous snakes during worship services, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1878 that the Mormon practice of polygamy was not protected under the First Amendment, even though it was sanctioned by the church at that time. Generally speaking, religious groups in America enjoy great freedom.
14) Do threats to church-state separation still exist?
Yes. Even though the likelihood of either the federal or state governments trying to establish an official church is remote, the First Amendment's ban on government "establishment" of religion has been interpreted to mean that there is a "wall of separation" between church and state that broadly prohibits many forms of direct government assistance to religious institutions, government sponsorship of religious worship and instruction in public schools and government promotion of religious symbols and doctrines. Some people do not agree with this approach, despite all of the freedom it gives us. They want to see their religion supported by government. These forces seek to undermine the church-state wall at every turn.
15) What's wrong with the government reimbursing a church for providing social services to those in need?
People should be free to donate only to the religious organizations of their choice or to refrain from donating to any. When government takes tax money and awards it to religious groups, that freedom is lost. Many religiously affiliated social service agencies proselytize and discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. Such activities should not be subsidized by the taxpayers. In addition, when religious entities become dependent on government money, they lose some of their freedom. Seldom do their leaders have the courage to challenge the government's wrongdoing. It is better for religious groups to rely on funding from their supporters rather than risk losing their prophetic voice.
16) Are people who support church-state separation anti-religion?
People support church-state separation for many different reasons. Many of the most intense advocates for the secular character of the U.S. government have been the people who are most respectful of religion and devoted to preserving the integrity of faith communities. Many devout believers back church-state separation because they don't want the government to meddle in matters of theology. They are aware that such unions have caused problems throughout history and see the deleterious results today in nations that merge religion and government.
Defending your religious liberty since 1947. Help us educate people to the truth of history.
Nashville Chapter Americans United for Separation of Church and State, PO Box 210005, Nashville TN 37221