The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says government shall make no establishment of religion. The actual words prohibit the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is not an ambiguous phrase. They did not want a state sponsored religion similar to Great Britain. Some of them fled Britain to avoid the Church of England.
The free exercise of religion is clearly protected, but the term “separation of church and state” is not found in the U.S. Constitution. Even though it does not appear, it certainly does apply, and it is wrong to claim the separation is a myth. However, there are several interpretations of the Constitution and none is definitive. Many argue that the Establishment clause was designed to prevent a ” Church of England” situation, but not to ban Christmas trees from public squares. The ACLU says creationism is a religious doctrine so it should not be taught in public schools. Others say the establishment clause means the government should stay out of religion, not the other way round.
The Constitution is America’s legal framework, and the basis for all of its laws. It does not in any way refer to God. Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (one of the first documents approved by the U.S. Congress) says “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin did not attend church on a regular basis.
On the other hand, the preamble of the Declaration of Independence mentions “Nature’s God” and the “Creator.” “God” is also found on the dollar bill and in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Federalist Papers, and the 1000 letters of John Adams, also document the role of God in establishing American values.
Some people consider the “Separation of Church and State” to be a constitutional mandate. What is often cited is Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danberry Baptist Association (which is often called the Danbury Convention). Jefferson was trying to prevent the adoption of a “state-sponsored” religion as there was in Virginia at the time. The Danbury Convention was talking about “antidisestablishmentarianism,” which is the longest word in the English language. This movement advocated stopping government support of the Episcopal Church and repealing statutes which required all office holders in Virginia to be Episcopal.
Far from being a mere courtesy to a group of constituents, Jefferson’s letter was a major pronouncement on church and state. It has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In one such case, Reynolds v. U.S. in 1879, the high court ruled that Jefferson’s observations “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect” of the First Amendment. Jefferson’s letter states:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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.”
Once again, the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the Constitution, but neither do many other legal concepts. The “right to a fair trial” is not mentioned but no one would dispute that it is a widely accepted constitutional principal. In addition, “religious liberty” is not mentioned but it is clearly an idea embedded in the Constitution.
It is entirely appropriate to speak of “the separation of church and state” as a constitutional principal because the term offers a precise summary of what the First Amendment does. Only by separating church and state can we guarantee religious liberty. The First Amendment does not forbid religious leaders from speaking out and trying to influence government. The First Amendment bars any attempt by government to tell Americans how they should practice, what they should practice or whether they should practice at all. It prohibits the government from imposing on Americans any sort of religious belief.