When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, only a brief statement about religion was included. It merely declared that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification for Office of Public Trust under the United States.” However, framers of the Constitution believed that religious liberties were assured because powers of the federal government were limited and states and the people were allowed powers not assigned to the federal government.
However many Americans were concerned because the Constitution did not specify and assure civil and religious liberties for citizens. State leaders were fearful that a person or group would become powerful enough to suppress the people. Indeed, no one had defined who “the people” were. Many state leaders who were charged with ratifying the Constitution would not sign unless there were amendments that protected individual liberties.
James Madison believed that a long list of specific rights was unnecessary and might even be used by would-be tyrants to limit freedoms. Nevertheless, the opposition to ratification was so vocal and persistent that he decided to prepare twelve amendments, which he presented to the House of Representatives. Ten of the amendments were ratified as part of the Constitution in 1791. Known as the Bill of Rights, they cover not only freedom of religion, speech and the press, but also spell out the right to bear arms, to be protected from unreasonable searches, and the right to life, liberty, and property. The full Bill of Rights can be found in American History books and online in many websites.
After the Bill of Rights was adopted, some states were still concerned. The ten amendments applied only to the federal government. Years passed before the rights guaranteed in the Constitution applied to the states. The Civil War from 1861 to 1865, primarily fought over slavery, divided the country. After the war, the passage of the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867 underscored the need for new state constitutions and equal rights for each citizen, including former slaves. Eventually the Act and others to follow led states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868. The amendment states in part:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that state and local governments must adhere to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights just as the federal government does.
The First Amendment, backed by the Fourteenth, frequently has been associated with a phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” (or between religion and government). The phrase was coined by Thomas Jefferson while he was president. The Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut had congratulated Jefferson on his election. In a reply dated January 1, 1802, Jefferson thanked the Baptists for their “affectionate sentiments of esteem” and praise. He acknowledged that along with the Baptists he believed that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship…. I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Over the years politicians, lawyers, judges, clergy, private citizens, and others have used the wall-of-separation phrase to accentuate the meaning of the First Amendment. But that figure of speech has also created conflicts. Some proclaim that the wall must be kept high and indestructible. Others say there are cracks in the so-called wall or that it’s more like a picket fence.
Indeed, the boundary between religion and government does at times seem vague. After all, the nation’s first president, George Washington, proclaimed a day for public prayer and thanksgiving, and U.S. presidents ever since have delivered religious proclamations on Thanksgiving Day. Religion also plays a role when elected officials are sworn into office: they take an oath with a hand on a Bible. In addition both houses of Congress and state legislatures begin their sessions with prayers offered by chaplains who are paid from tax funds. “In God We Trust” appears on U.S. coins and is a national motto.
In the 1950s, the Pledge of Allegiance was revised to insert, “under God” within it—a phrase that President Dwight Eisenhower thought would counteract the threat of communism prevalent at the time. The original pledge, written in 1892, said: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In 1923, the phrase “the Flag of the United States of America” was added. Then in 1954, Congress revised the pledge again to say: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In spite of these examples, the separation of religion and government still prevails. Over the years, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has ruled on numerous cases regarding the establishment clause of the First Amendment. For example, in 1940 various religious faiths in Champaign, Illinois, formed a Council on Religious Education, and with “permission from the local school board” provided religious instruction. Classes were free and “were taught by Roman Catholic priests, Protestant teachers, and Jewish rabbis, all of whom were approved and supervised by the school superintendent. The classes took place in the school building during regular hours and were offered one day a week,” according James Van Patten writing for the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Vashti McCollum, a taxpayer and parent of a child in the school system, sued, claiming that the program violated the establishment clause.” The state court upheld the program, but the case eventually reached the Supreme Court and Jurists found that religious instruction in public schools violated the First Amendment and thus was unconstitutional.
In a 1961 case, Torcaso v. Watkins, SCOTUS held that the state of Maryland could not require people seeking public office to swear they believed in God. Such a directive was a religious test and therefore violated the establishment clause. Other High Court cases in the 1960s found that prayer composed by public school officials was unconstitutional because it was government-sponsorship of religion. Public schools that banned teaching of evolution in favor of creationism, a religious view, violated the First Amendment.
By 1971, the High Court was using a three-part test in determining whether the establishment clause had been violated. First, to comply with the establishment of religion clause, the law or government practice must have a secular purpose. Second, the primary effect cannot be to support or aid religion or to inhibit it. And third, the law or practice must not bring about excessive government involvement with religion.
Those tests have been applied over and over again. But no matter what the SCOTUS decisions, public arguments over religion and government pop up continually in the United States. The controversy is between those who argue that government involvement with religious institutions and activities should be restricted and those who contend that government has its place in religious life.