Church and State

What Is The Separation of Church and State?

The Separation of Church and State has been an issue for centuries. Many different interpretations exist as to what it really means, but, what does it mean? In this article I go back to roots of the U.S. Constitution and its framers in order to get a better understanding. Follow me along this journey.

The following was an essay originally wrote for Keiser University’s Political Science class July, 2014.

Article 1

Article 1 Bibliographic Information:

Wallace, J. C. (2001). The framers’ establishment clause: How high the wall? Brigham Young University Law Review, 2001(2), 755-772. Retrieved from

Article 1 Summary:

In “The framers’ establishment clause: How high the wall?” Clifford J. Wallace shows how many modern interpretations of the United States Constitution’s Establishment Clause waver from the original Framers intent.

What does the Constitution’s Establishment Clause really mean?

In this article Wallace says that many Supreme Court cases have interpreted the Establishment Clause as an impenetrable wall prohibiting any relations between government and a church within its borders.

According to Wallace, the Framers’ of the Constitution were religious men; they had a reverence for God and were men of faith. Wallace even mentions that Dr. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Framers, in an address to President George Washington said, the longer he lived, the more convinced he was that God governed in matters of people.

Wallace said that even though the Framers’ were religious men, they still wanted an Establishment Clause in the Constitution. Taking a look at it in the historical context of the time, Wallace say’s that before the Constitution was drafted each State or Colony had an official state church, even its clergy was paid by the state. The Framers were afraid that if this were to remain and continue as it was, that the Freedom of Religion, one of the greatest reasons for coming to this new land, would be lost through state legislation mandating church attendance and participation to a particular church.

Later Wallace goes on to mention that James Madison’s initial draft of the Establishment Clause states, nor shall any national religion be established, by looking at the Framers intentions through the eyes of history, we can see that the interpretations of the Establishment Clause now, and the original Framers’ intentions then are quite different.

In conclusion, what does the Establishment Clause mean? Certainly it does not mean an impenetrable wall between church/religion and government. Wallace made it quite clear that the Framers’ intent of the First Amendment was that the Federal Government was not to establish a dominant religion, allowing to states to do so, but greatly feared it, and even helped in the disestablishment of state churches according to the principles of the Constitution. Finally, Congress was not to give preferential treatment to any religion whatsoever. Wallace said he is optimistic that the Supreme Court will navigate its interpretation back to that of the Framers’, and in doing so, the Supreme Court can finally apply the interpretation of the Establishment Clause that is consistent with that of the Framers’. Not an impenetrable wall between church and government, just no advocacy of any one religion.

Article 2

Article 2 Bibliographic Information:

Scharffs, B. G. (2004). The autonomy of church and state. Brigham Young University Law Review, 2004(4), 1217-1348. Retrieved from

Article 2 Summary:

Here in “The Autonomy of Church and State” Brett G. Scharffs describes how the separation of church and state relates to the First Amendment (of the U.S. Constitution) and the Establishment Clause or Nonestablishment Clause as he refers to it.

Why was the Nonestablishment (Establishment) Clause created, and what did it mean to the people of the United States?

Scharffs starts his article by stating that since World War II there have been two visions of the First Amendment, which have competed for superiority between each other. The first view is, the separation of church and state, and the second view is, finding a larger area for accommodating religion in public life.

Scharffs goes on to state, that the quest for religious freedom was one of the most powerful forces driving the early settlers at the time. These early settlers knew how a state sanctioned religion could be a disaster to any civilization. However, many states had sanctioned churches, even the funding to operate the church came from the state government. Scharffs mentioned James Madison’s theory that the free exercise of religion is a right, arranged in an orderly manner that forces the demands of an orderly people. This is why James Madison drafted the First Amendment choosing his words carefully.

Scharffs said that Madison’s original intent of the Nonestablishment Clause was aimed toward the Federal Government. The purpose of the Nonestablishment Clause was to prohibit the Federal Government from establishing a national or sanctioned religion. However, it was not until after the Civil War when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed that individual states were included. Now the intent of the Nonestablishment was to both the Federal and State Governments.

Why was the Nonestablishment Clause created? According to Scharffs the reasons were the following. Firstly, the Nonestablishment Clause would prohibit government’s from exercising power that would influence church participation and attendance. And, secondly, the Nonestablishment Clause would prohibit the church from exercising the government’s power to enforce criminal punishment.

In conclusion, the meaning of the Nonestablishment Clause as to the people of the United States, is, that the powers of the church would not and could not be shared with a government, and that the powers of the government could not and would not be shared with the church.

Article 3

Article 3 Bibliographic Information:

Esbeck, C. H. (2006). Governance and the religion question: Voluntaryism, disestablishment, and america’s church-state proposition. Journal of Church and State, 48(2), 303-326. Retrieved from

Article 3 Summary:

In reading the “Governance and the religion question: Voluntaryism, disestablishment, and America’s church-state proposition” by Carl H. Esbeck, we can see how he describes the fine line between church and state.

Where is the boundary between state and church governance?

Esbeck started by saying that, more importantly than governments and religion, is one’s conscience, that is, a religious conscience or personal belief system, which means, that a person could hold to a personal belief system or religion of his or her desire for it was and is his or her right to do so.

It is the outward practice of that belief which makes governing authorities take notice. The state is not to interfere with a person’s religion as long as it does not interfere, injure or discriminate against others. But the question is where is the line between practicing a religion and civil or criminal activity?

The fundamental obligation of any State is to keep the public peace, and protect its people and their property. A state’s obligation to protect its people and property cannot interfere with the people’s right to practice religion. Even if a state passed laws infringing upon a religion or religion in general, there would not be enough police power or enforce those laws. So a line needs to be drawn between religion and state.

Esbeck also said, that the church and state must have dialog with each other to keep civil peace and harmony between the people and sects of the state. Although the communication between church/religion and state may not always be harmonious, communication needs to exist so the line between church and state can remain visible.

Concluding this summary, Esbeck referred to a writing by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, where she said that Americans may not realize how fortunate they are to have constitutional boundaries between the church and state. Those countries that are governed by religion are in distress and travail. Why trade a system that has served this country well for a system that has brought devastation to other countries?

Article 4

Article 4 Bibliographic Information:

Nadon, C. (2006). Absolutism and the separation of church and state in Locke’s letter concerning toleration. Perspectives on Political Science, 35(2), 94-102. Retrieved from

Article 4 Summary:

In “Absolutism and the Separation of Church and State in Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration” Christopher Nadon explores John Locke’s letter concerning toleration, and questions how toleration could affect a government and a civil people.

Is toleration of religion by a government detrimental, and should toleration be an unsuppressed right?

Exploring the area of toleration of a church in a governmental aspect, Nadon expressed how there needs to be a toleration of religion, because, freedom of religion is a person’s natural born right. Nadon went on to explain, religious freedoms were one of many natural-born rights of a person. However, religious freedoms were the most dominating force of a person when it comes to a person’s beliefs and morals. As long as the religious beliefs of a person do not cause civil unrest or a disruption of peace, then there would be no reason to infringe upon those rights. The problem arises when religious fanatics cause a disruption of the peace in society, then the toleration by the government should not be unhindered.

In conclusion, Nadon stated a strong reason for the division of church/religion and state. Even with the religious freedoms righted individuals, magistrates and those in authority should not extend the toleration of a religion into using the religion to create public or civil policies. The religious rights people should guide their own moral lives, and the magistrates and legislation should be left to govern the civil society. Toleration of religion would not be hurt or affect the government, as long the religion did not filter its way into government creating policies or legislation. Toleration of religion by the government needs to be restricted in order to keep the public peace and civil rest. To sum it all up in one sentence, religious toleration should be expressed and experienced, as long as the religion does not affect society in a negative way.

Article 5

Article 5 Bibliographic Information:

Drakeman, D. L. (2007). The church historians who made the First Amendment what it is today. Religion and American Culture : R & AC, 17(1), 27-56. Retrieved from

Article 5 Summary:

In “The church historians who made the First Amendment what it is today,” Donald L. Drakeman explains how the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment acquired it interpretation.

How did today’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause come into existence?

The First Amendment was adopted in December 1791, and it took about ninety years before it was ever challenged. Then in 1878, in the case Reynolds v. United States, Chief Justice Morrison Waite set out to interpret the First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion clause, and write the court’s opinion for the caseReynolds v. United States. Since Waite was the first magistrate to encounter a case like this, he had to refer to the historical context of time the First Amendment was enacted. At this time, Drakeman says, that Waite consulted his friend and historian George Bancroft in trying to interpret the First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion Clause. Bancroft referred Waite to Virginia’s Statue regarding Freedom of Religion. So after much research, Waite, through the writings of James Madison, along with others of the time, combined with Virginia’s Freedom of Religion Statute, came up with an interpretation to Freedom of Religion clause. However, in writing his opinion, Waite revised some of the contextual material he studied leaving out parts concerning certain denominations of Christianity.

It was not until about a hundred years later that Justices started to wane from Chief Justice Morrison Waite’s opinion, and started referring back to historical context of time the First Amendment was drafted in its entirety.

In conclusion, today’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion Clause has come through revision of history, and then revisions of revisions.

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