Church and State

Although there are many flavors of Humanism, there is at least one area we all agree on. Humanists insist on the separation of Church and State. Separation of Church and State means the government and religion must not be entwined with each other. The government should be neutral in religious matters and religion does not have an advantage in the government. This concept was described in a letter that Thomas Jefferson, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution of 1789, wrote to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1801, as a “wall” between the state and religion.

Jefferson and his contemporaries lived at a time when kings ruled by divine right with support of the head of the state church. In England, the king was the head of the state church himself and appointed bishops, who served in the House of Lords as members of the British Parliament. If you wanted a career in government, you had to belong to the recognized Church. Governments collected taxes for that state church, and state church clerics had significant influence on the matters of state.

Fringe religious groups were persecuted and even killed for their beliefs and in many cases the government encouraged or participated in this persecution. Many of these groups moved around a lot to try to find a place where they could practice their religion. Some groups of colonists to what would become the United States were members of religions being persecuted in Europe.

The US Constitution includes a couple of statements that lead us to the concept of the “wall.” The 1st Amendment prohibits Congress from passing laws that infringes on a person exercising his religious beliefs or that establishes a religion. The 14th Amendment extended these limitations to state legislatures and local governing groups. The Constitution also prohibits religious tests for public office. In the hundreds of words in the text, there is not one mention of God or a particular religion. Jefferson knew that freedom of religion was important and that government needed to protect that right. He was one of the primary authors, along with George Mason, of the Virginia Bill of Religious Freedom in 1779.

The thinking for the separation is that for religion to flourish, the government needs to keep completely out of religion and religious issues. After 200 years under the Constitution, the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world and we have the most religiously diverse populations in the world. For that diversity to continue, the government must not act in a way that favors one religion over another.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the United States avoided sectarian strife. In 1801, the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut wrote Jefferson because the Connecticut state constitution did not prohibit the state from legislating about religious matters. The letter said, “…what religious privileges we [Baptists] enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.“1

The Baptists at the time were a fringe religious group. Those fringe groups were the ones discriminated against not only by their local government but also by people from the dominant religious groups like the Congregationalists.

Throughout the early part of US history, various fringe groups were persecuted or discriminated against for their religious beliefs.

Mormons, especially, found themselves the targets of citizens and state governments seeking to drive them out of existence. In the 1840s, the Mormons had a successful settlement at Nauvoo Illinois. The other Christians in the area resented their success and tensions simmered. After a violent encounter, the authorities arrested the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith and his brother.

A mob of Christians arrived at the jail to exact their own justice and Smith was murdered. This event split the Mormon church with part of the group following Brigham Young toward Utah while the other part went to Missouri.

The Christians didn’t like Mormons because of their “strange” beliefs that said Jesus had visited the Native Americans. This distrust manifested itself into persecution.

There were also the “Bible” Riots in 1844 in Philadelphia. The riots occurred when the Catholics in Philadelphia tried to have the Protestant King James Bible removed from the public schools.

Large numbers of Irish immigrants arrived in Philadelphia. A majority was of the Roman Catholic faith yet when their children went to the public schools, they were forced to read from the Protestant King James version of the Bible. The Protestant majority controlled the local government and the schools.

In 1842, Philadelphia bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick asked the school board to remove anti-Catholic books. Kenrick also requested that Catholic students be permitted to use their own Bibles – the Douay version – during morning devotionals.

In late February of 1844, a rumor started that a school director in the heavily Catholic north Philadelphia suburb of Kensington had ordered a teacher to suspend Bible readings. Like most rumors, it wasn’t true.

Then the politicians got involved using anti-Catholic rhetoric in speeches held in Catholic neighborhoods that built up the heat until finally a shot rang out and the riot was on.

When the riot was over, most of the damage was in the Irish neighborhoods. There was also 19 killed and 40 wounded. The Irish were blamed for the riot by trying to remove the Bible from the public schools.

It wasn’t until 1947 and 1948, with Everson vs. Board of Education (1947) and McCollum vs. Board of Education (1948) that the US Supreme Court began enforcing the separation of Church and State. Everson forbid the direct state funding of religious schools and/or religious instruction in public schools. McCollum ended the practice of public schools allowing clergy to come in during the school day and hold religious classes for those children whose parents wanted them.

Separation of church and state is important to Humanists because it protects our freedom of conscious. By preventing the government from favoring a particular religious belief, we are free not to believe. Separation of church and state also is important to believers because it prevents a majority religion from using the law to persecute a minority religion.

For more general information on this topic, I recommend a great website that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about separation of church and state. Here is the link:

The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State

1 From the text of the letter from the Danbury Baptists Association to Thomas Jefferson dated 10/07/1801.

Posted by Doug Berger – February 10, 2003

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