Why is there separation of church and state in the United States?

Expert Answers
jgoulden eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "separation of church and state" is derived from two statements in the First Amendment of the US Constitution: the "establishment clause" and the "free exercise clause" that immediately follows, which are: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Thomas Jefferson's opinion on this matter was influenced by the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that the government lacked the authority in the realm of individual conscience. Jefferson wrote that religion is between a man and his God, and was among the first to describe the First Amendment as a "wall of separation" between Church and State. However, this did not mean that Jefferson believed that the State should be entirely divorced from religion; as President, Jefferson (for example) used Federal funds to support Catholic ministries among the Indians. James Madison wrote that he would have preferred that the First Amendment read "no religious doctrine shall be established by law" and stated that his interpretation of the First Amendment was that Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law. Both Jefferson and Madison supported the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which states that no man can be compelled to participate in any religious activities.

In the subsequent two centuries, the US Supreme Court has referenced the separation of Church and State on many occasions. The Court has ruled that certain rules of society cannot be violated under this clause; for instance, the Mormon practice of polygamy was ruled illegal and not a right under religious freedom. Cases involving the use of otherwise-illegal hallucinogenic drugs as part of religious ceremony have gone both ways. Justice Scalia has commented that the separation of Church and State has been used as a "bulldozer" to remove all references to religion from public life. This has not deterred Presidents from making open reference to their religious faith while in office. It is generally acknowledged that in the US people have more freedom to worship as they please (or not) than in most other parts of the world.

thinker13 | Student

the seperation of church and state in the u.s. have alot of differences. in many ways they should be seperated but at the same time they shouldnt. alot of peolpe complain that it should n shouldnt.

my opinion on this debate is that it should be seperated, so that people can practice their religion freely without interuputions. some states have restrictions on that but they shouldnt. ITS WRONG. dont they know that if they do that then people are just going 2 do it more. our class were reading article that happened about 2 years saying that in new york the court up there decided that they were going to make a prayer for the public schools to read every moring only if they wanted. many parents disagreed because they thought that the school bored was trying to put thier beliefs on thier child, which they were,. i think so to.

owlbarf | Student

This is one of the most hotly debated, and least understood, issue in the U.S. The answer gives a great historical background. Reading the biographical and political works of the founding fathers show that almost all of them were extremely religious in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and none of them showed any leanings towards restricting the practice of any religion.

Having said that, there are several groups that are trying to remove any reference of religion from government. The leader of this effort is probably the ACLU, which is already in it's annual campaign of removing all outdoor nativity scenes. They believe it should be illegal to display any religious content that might offend another religion. Oh, wait, that isn't true because they are equally active in promoting the forced acceptance of alternative religions, such as overturning bans on the practice of pagan rituals in the same areas they are trying to remove nativity scenes from.

In reality most ot the effort to remove religion from government is an effort to remove Judeo-Christian religious references and replacing them with alternative religious thoughts and ideas. There are numerous examples of this, once of the most prominent being the removal of all references to "traditional" families (one man and one woman) from public schools-but placing books and curriculum in those same schools that say homosexual and other alternative family lifestyles are "normal" and must be accepted.