The First Amendment: Separation of Church and State

The “separation of church and state” phrase gets thrown around frequently as a first amendment issue, but you’d be surprised to see the phrase doesn’t appear where it’s frequently credited—in the first amendment to the Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Whoops — the magic phrase doesn’t appear. Notice what the amendment does say regarding religion:

  • Congress shall not force (establish) a national religion.
  • Congress shall not prohibit or restrict freedom to worship or other expressions of religion.

The founders wanted to make sure no one either forced a particular religion nationally, or prevented anyone from worshiping whatever they wanted. If you’re a Christian, great, if you follow Buddha, no problem — if you’re a druid and worship trees, good for you. If you’re an atheist and worship Darwin and Dawkins, glad that’s working out for you.

But we are not to have a national religion run by the federal government—a theocracy if you will. Yet many people attempting to force the country into an atheist secular humanist mold dwell on the first part of the amendment, and forget the second. Paul Fidalgo, the communications manager for the Secular Coalition for America makes that mistake as he responds after Sarah Palin called the United States a Christian nation:

While the founders’ views on religion varied from person to person, there is no doubt that they believed strongly that religion had no place in government

Our Constitution established a secular government and has no mention of Jesus, Christianity, or a god of any kind, despite the false message spread by figures such as Sarah Palin who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation,” Fidalgo continued

No place in government? Not so—they prayed before sessions, posted the ten commandments, and so on; history shouts the error of Mr. Fidalgo. As they included religion in their government, Mr. Fidalgo remains factually incorrect just as if he claimed the sky is orange or 2+2=5; his statements are absurd in their stunning factual errors; we’ll just cite examples of God and Jesus in government, which contradicts his assertion the founders believed “religion had no place in government”.

Whereas, the people of these United States, from their earliest history to the present time, have been led by the hand of a kind Providence and are indebted for the countless blessings of the past and present, and dependent for continued prosperity in the future upon Almighty God; and whereas the great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it eminently becomes the representatives of a people so highly favored to acknowledge in the most public manner their reverence for God: therefore, Resolved, That the daily sessions of this body be opened with prayer and that the ministers of the Gospel in this city are hereby requested to attend and alternately perform this solemn duty.
Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives Made During the First Session of the Thirty-Third Congress (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, 1854)

And for the objection of using chaplains in Congress? If, as Mr. Fidalgo, says the founders believed “religion had no place in government”, perhaps he could explain the following as well:

The whole view of the petitioners seems founded upon mistaken conceptions of the meaning of the Constitution. … If [the use of chaplains] had been a violation of the Constitution, why was not its character seen by the great and good men who were coeval with the government, who were in Congress and in the Presidency when this constitutional amendment was adopted? They, if any one did, understood the true purport of the amendment, and were bound, by their duty and their oath, to resist the introduction or continuance of chaplains, if the views of the petitioners were correct. But they did no such thing; and therefore we have the strongest reason to suppose the notion of the petitioner to be unfounded. … They had no fear or jealousy of religion itself, nor did they wish to see us an irreligious people…
The Reports of the Committees of the Senate of the United States for the Second Session of the Thirty-Second Congress, 1852-53 (Washington: Robert Armstrong, 1853)

Quite a difference exists between government forcing national religion on its citizens, and freely allowing religious expression even (gasp!) in government. The first is unconstitutional, the second most certainly is not (as we’ll get to shortly).

The first amendment involves freedom to religion (whatever religion means for you—Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, Judaism, etc), not the freedom from religion many people try to make it; examining how the founders and government acted in those early days makes this abundantly clear. By attempting to force their religion of atheism onto others, those people try to prohibit the free exercise of someone’s religion.

Freedom of religion isn’t freedom from religion, it means if your faith lies with Jesus, Buddha, atheism (yes, atheism requires faith), or the tree in your backyard, you’re free to do so. It does not mean you won’t hear other points of view, or you have the right to force others to refrain from religious expression simply because you don’t want to hear it. What happened to tolerance and honoring diversity? If someone has beliefs you don’t hold, sit quietly and respectfully while they observe their faith. Is that not the very definition of tolerance and honoring diversity?

Thus if a student wants to mention God, Jesus or Buddha in their school speech, it must be allowable, as it can’t be a government establishment of religion for the simple reason the student isn’t a government official. Additionally, the early founders included religion in daily government activities; the idea the founders meant the first amendment required an atheist secular society fails to stand the test of history.

But some atheists attempt to twist the first amendment into an I-never-want-to-hear-God idea, which it clearly was never intended to be—by studying how the founders acted in those early years, this becomes abundantly obvious; a Supreme Court ruling in 1952 noted the country is religious, and should not prefer atheism over religion.

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. … When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.
Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U. S. 306 (1952)

The Supreme Court acknowledged the religious background of the country which should end the silly discussion about the historical religious nature of the country; a debate can ensue whether the founders had the correct idea in the way they handled religion in government (that’s a matter of opinion, not fact), but by examining history it’s obvious Mr. Fidalgo’s laughably absurd claim demonstrates a stunning and complete failure to acknowledge facts.

No matter how often he, other atheists, and history-deniers repeat erroneous claims, the claims remain factually wrong.

This case is closed—next time, we’ll discuss more credible theories … like the moon landing hoax.

Filed Under: The Constitution

Recommended Citation:
Yeager, Darrin "The First Amendment: Separation of Church and State" (2024-05-19 17:20),
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