Fact, fiction on ‘separation of church and state’

Published 8:30 am Thursday, September 30, 2010

Charles C. Haynes, First Amendment

When Glen Urquhart told a candidates’ forum last April that Adolf Hitler, not Thomas Jefferson, coined the phrase “separation of church and state,” he probably didn’t anticipate that his bizarre take on history would be disseminated to the world on YouTube — just in time for the fall campaign. But in the Internet era, no off-the-wall comment goes unrecorded.

Charles Haynes

Now Urquhart, the Republican nominee for Delaware’s only congressional seat, is scrambling to explain what he meant when he said: “The next time your liberal friends ask you about the separation of church and state, ask them why they are Nazis.”

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The kerfuffle in Delaware over the origin of “separation” is just the latest example of how the phrase “separation of church and state,” once an article of American civic faith, has become a bludgeon in our angry culture-war debates over the role of religion in public life.

On one extreme, there are those who insist the principle of church-state separation isn’t in the Constitution. On the other extreme are those who argue that separating church from state should mean erasing every vestige of religion from the public square.

Most Americans appear to fall somewhere in the moderate middle. According to the latest State of the First Amendment survey conducted by the First Amendment Center, a sizable majority of the American people — 66 percent to be exact — agree that the First Amendment “requires a clear separation of church and state.”

But support for “clear separation” doesn’t translate into a call for banning all government acknowledgement of religion. Seventy-six percent of respondents, for example, approve of Congress and the president declaring a “national day of prayer.”

Nor do most people interpret “separation of church and state” to mean keeping public-school students from expressing their religious views. Seventy-five percent agree that students should be able to speak about their faith at public school events — and 80 percent say they should be allowed to offer a prayer.

Surprisingly, even a majority (59 percent) of those who don’t practice a religion support allowing students to pray at school-sponsored events.

These findings suggest that most people see a big difference between government promotion of religion in public schools (which the First Amendment’s establishment clause prohibits) and student religious expression in public schools (which the free-exercise and free-speech clauses protect in many circumstances).

Of course, First Amendment line-drawing gets more complicated in specific legal cases. The challenge for courts is to determine when student speech is genuinely student speech — and not school-endorsed speech. Although current law on this issue is somewhat murky, the courts generally support allowing students to express their religious views at school events if they are speaking freely without school editorial involvement or control.

Although I’m encouraged that most people agree that the First Amendment requires church-state separation, I worry that 53 percent of Americans still mistakenly believe that U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation. Although the United States was a majority Christian country at its founding and remains so today, nowhere in the Constitution is Christianity officially “established” or even preferred.

Even before “no establishment” was added to the Constitution in the First Amendment, Article VI — “no religious test” for office — barred any attempt to impose Christian rule. Of course, we are all free to advocate for a society that reflects our religious or nonreligious values, but we are constitutionally prevented from using government to establish any religion.

The drafters of the First Amendment didn’t use the words “separation of church and state” to describe the principle of no establishment. But by prohibiting the federal government from passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” the Framers clearly and unambiguously separated the institutions of government and religion.

Glen Urquhart got it partly right. Thomas Jefferson was not the first to use the language of “separation.” But Hitler didn’t invent the concept either (and his brutal repression of religion bears no resemblance to Jeffersonian separation).

It was Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, who in 1640 called for “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

What Williams believed then is still true today: Entanglement of religion and government corrupts faith and oppresses conscience. Separating church from state is not just a good idea — it is the essential condition for full religious liberty.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.