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Separation of Church and State
What Does it Mean to Separate "Church" and "State"?
The framers of the U.S. Constitution knew all about religious oppression, that was one of the reasons they braved a trip across the hostile North Atlantic and established themselves on a new continent. It seems reasonable, since the Constitution was designed to protect citizens from the unbridled power of government, that a guarantee of religious freedom would find it's way into the document somewhere. That guarantee is what we now know as the concept of separation of church and state.
Unfortunately, as with many great ideas, this one has become corrupted over the centuries. Let's take a closer look at the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
"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."
Breaking it Down
There are a number of critical guarantees contained in this amendment, let's take a closer look at the first two.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."
There certainly is no confusion here, it clearly states that the federal government cannot make any law that supports or endorses a religion or religious group. That certainly fits with the notion of "separation of church and state" as most people understand it.
It seems odd then, that few people seem to be bothered by the fact that our currency proudly proclaims, "In God We Trust," or that when testifying in court you can swear to tell the truth, "...so help you God," or that Congress opens legislative sessions with a prayer.
For some reason, it's the second part of this statement that seems to be more troublesome:
"Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
Isn't that exactly what a policy prohibiting prayer in a public school does? Isn't that exactly what restrictions on the use of government facilities by religious groups does? Certainly there is a time and a place for everything, and the exercise of individual rights does not include the disruption of the rights of others, but clearly, any attempt by the government to prevent a person from exercising their religion is unconstitutional. You don't need to be a rocket scientist, or a lawyer specializing in constitutional law, to understand the intent of the founding fathers on this issue.
It has only taken us a few hundred years to get the entire concept completely backwards! The essence of this portion of the first amendment is to prevent the government from being religious, and to guarantee the people the right to be.
It's probably a good thing that Thomas Jefferson isn't alive to see this.