Is the separation of church and state under attack in the USA?
Many Americans Misunderstand the Separation of Church and State
Josh Sager – August 2012
The United States is a purely secular country and was
founded on the ideal that government should be completely separated from any
religious sect. The term “separation of church and state”—a quote from Thomas
Jefferson—is the most common label for the freedom of religion guaranteed by
the 1st Amendment of the constitution. Unfortunately, many modern
citizens and elected officials have begun to twist the ideal of the 1st
Amendment to facilitate religious discrimination and the imposition of
religious laws over non-believers.
The first sentence of the 1st Amendment
reads as such:
Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
-- 1st Amendment of the Constitution—
Amendment establishes a double-edged separation of church and state; one side
of this separation prevents religion from taking control over the government,
while the other side prevents government from interfering with religious
The first edge of the
separation of church and state prevents the state from establishing a religion.
No legislation, either on the federal or state level, is constitutionally
allowed to sanction or officially enforce a religious ideology; any law based
upon a religious doctrine (ex. Muslim Sharia laws) is considered a violation of
this amendment. In addition to preventing religious laws from being enacted,
this separation prevents and official endorsement of a religion by the state
(ex. mandating public prayer), and prevents the establishment of a state
The second edge of the
separation of church and state ensures that the government cannot interfere
with personal religious practices. Except in extreme cases (ex. human
sacrifice), the government is barred from stopping of obstructing religious
expression by individuals.
In modern politics,
several right wing factions have begun to attack the very idea of the
separation of church and state. Numerous political groups and politicians (ex.
Rick Santorum) have begun to actively deny that this separation exists, and
openly seek to establish religious laws. Unfortunately, three fundamental
misunderstandings surrounding the separation of church and state have aided
these individuals in their quest to erode the 1st Amendment and
impose their religious doctrines over secular society:
The separation of church and state does not
prevent the government from stopping people from imposing their religion on
The right to free
exercise of religion is a personal right, and you have no constitutional right
to impose your religion over anybody else. The government is not only allowed,
but obligated, to step in and prevent an individual or organization from
violating the religious practices of another. Just as everybody has the right
to practice their religion, they also have the right not to be interfered with
by other religions.
Americans are upset when their attempts to impose their religious practices
over others are thwarted-they claim that their religious overreach is actually
a religious practice and see any attempt to protect society from their religion
to be an attack on religious liberty.
In the last several
years, there have been large debates over the rights of homosexuals to marry,
and the right of employers to refuse to cover contraception; both of these
issues are examples of religious individuals attempting to impose their
religion on society. If an employer’s religious beliefs dictate that they
should not take contraception, they may choose not to take contraception, but
they may not refuse to offer contraception in their employees’ insurance plans.
If an individual believes that homosexuality is a sin and that gay marriage
immoral, they are perfectly within their rights not to be gay and not to marry
somebody of the same sex; however, they have no right to refuse others of the
right to be gay or get married.
Religious beliefs do not exempt the religious
from having to comply with civil laws
Even with the 1st
Amendment separation of church and state, an individual’s religious beliefs do
not supersede the obligation to follow civil laws. Any exercise of religious
beliefs that violates secular laws or endangers other citizens is not protected
under the aegis of religious freedom.
this limitation on religious expression prevents people from shielding
anti-social behavior by claiming that it is protected by religious freedom. For
example: despite the fact that the bible actively promotes the execution of
gays, rape, slavery, human sacrifice and genocide, these anti-social behaviors
are not protected religious practices.
In modern politics,
many politicians have begun attempting to carve religious exemptions into the
civil law and allow religious individuals to have their own set of laws. The
most pervasive examples of these exemptions are the attempts to insert
conscience clauses into state medical laws. Numerous states have passed, or
tried to pass, laws which would allow Christian doctors to refuse contraception
or abortion services, even if this would risk the life of the mother.
Put plainly, the recent
attempts to allow religious Americans to live under a different set of rules
than secular Americans are wrong. You must follow the civil laws, regardless of
whether or not they conflict with personal religious convictions. If you are a
doctor who does not want to perform abortions, you have no right to take a job
which would put you into the situation where you must perform an abortion to protect
the mother, but then refuse to do your job—you can still be a doctor, but not
one that may be required to perform an abortion (ex. and anesthesiologist).
Amish individuals have the right to their beliefs, but they have no right to
sue for discrimination when they are hired as a bus driver yet refuse to drive
a bus because of their religion
Freedom of religion is also the freedom from
Just as the separation
of church and state protects the right of individuals to practice their
religion, it also protects the right of an individual to practice no religion.
Atheism is not a religion, but it is accorded the same legal rights of any
religious group. The right to not believe in god is protected and any attempt
to infringe upon this right should be fought with the same level of intensity
as any other type of religious bigotry.
Any attempt to impose
institutional prayer or inscribe the idea of a god upon the public, regardless
of the religion, is a violation of the separation of church and state. Those
who argue that they can mandate prayer because they don’t specify a religion
which must be practiced (ex. official school prayer), are simply wrong and must
The most extreme
examples of bigotry against atheists can be found in cases of custody battles
where the atheist parent loses custody of their children. In several instances
(ex. Craig Scarbury of Illinois), judges have used atheism as a justification
of removing custody of children from parents during divorce preceding—the
religious parent is given custody over the child, regardless of the other
factors, based entirely upon their religion. This situation is analogous to a
Jewish parent losing custody because the judge of the case supports the
Christian parent, yet there is comparably little outcry when the victim of this
discrimination is an atheist.
A great many Americans
misunderstand the idea of the separation of church and state. The
misunderstandings surrounding this separation have opened the door to religious
zealots imposing their religion over civil society. Religion is not a shield
which allows individuals to ignore the law, nor is it a protected religious
practice for an individual to impose their religion over others. Put plainly,
until a vast majority of Americans understand the separation of church and
state better, we will continue to see politicians attempt to perform end-runs
around the 1st Amendment.
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