Anytime government enters into the realm of regulating religious activity, it gets dicey.
No phrase is used incorrectly more often than “separation of church and state.”.
The separation of church and state doesn’t protect people from religious expression, it protects religion from the control of the state.
Think about how and why this country was founded. Who were the pilgrims that your kids dress up as every Thanksgiving at school?
They were basically religious refugees seeking a land where they could practice their religion. Their religion was not the “official” religion of England so they suffered various forms of persecution.
That beginning - in addition to the fact that the framers of our constitution were fans of the philosophies of John Locke who believed that governmental power was granted by the people it governed and people can’t grant religious beliefs to the government because it has no authority in matters of personal conscience - led to the principles upon which our government was founded.
The First Amendment specifically forbids the creation of an official church of America.
The phrase “separation of church and state” came from Thomas Jefferson.
He wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association where he referenced the “wall of separation between church and state” referring to the fact that the government would not interfere with the actions of any church.
The framers never viewed that separation as limiting on churches or the religious activity of the American people. In fact, it was noted by several framers that not “establishing” an official religion made people free to worship as they chose and actually increased religious participation.
James Madison, one of the principle authors of the Constitution, once said, "the religious devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state."
But despite the clear intent of the framers to protect the church from the government, many people still try to use this separation of church and state idea to protect themselves from religious activity of their fellow citizens. That is an incorrect interpretation.
You can see it used incorrectly in the news all of the time.
In Colorado, a gay couple who married in Massachusetts – one of 12 states to allow gay marriage – wanted to buy a cake at a Denver bakery to celebrate their union at home.
They were refused based on the religious convictions of the bakery owner. Apparently, the owner was known to refuse to serve gay customers as a principle of his religious beliefs.
Sure, the couple could have just gone to almost any other bakery. It is Denver. I bet there is more than one place to buy a cake.
But they chose this bakery and were refused service.
I don’t agree with discriminating against people because of their race, religion or sexual preference. But I also believe that the wall of separation between church and state should mean there can be no law that compels a man to bake a cake that he feels violates his religious convictions.
Let’s play this in another direction. Obviously, refusing to bake a cake for a black or Hispanic couple would never hold water when a shop owner said his discrimination against them was for religious purposes. What if a Muslim couple wanted a cake? Could he refuse them?
The line between expressing my religious freedom and discriminating against a protected minority can become quite gray and fuzzy.
In the end on this specific case, I side with the bakery owner. He is not government supported. He owns a private business. Gay marriage violates his religious beliefs. I don’t think he discriminated against them by not selling them a cake because nowhere in the constitution are any of us guaranteed free access to cake.
Another case that brings up the argument of the separation of church and state was a South Carolina high school’s graduation ceremony. Several atheist groups had complained about prayers at the public school graduation ceremonies so the school banned the practice.
In response, the student who gave the valedictory speech tore up his school-approved speech and instead recited the Lord’s Prayer.
It was a bold move. I appreciate him taking a stand. His speech and the story about it has gone viral with people of faith giving him their support.
Of course the school district can’t punish the student for expressing his beliefs. He can’t be punished for exercising his religious beliefs. But in the same sense, the school can’t approve that type of prayer with government support.
I doubt the same video would have gone viral if the young man had been a Muslim who said Allahu Akbar as a call to prayer and bowed toward Mecca as an expression of his religious beliefs.
I doubt the crowd would have been quite as supportive.
That’s why the separation between church and state exists. How would you feel if your Christian child went to a school ceremony where Islam was the official religion? I understand that atheists don’t appreciate the fact that we pray to a God they don’t believe exists.
But that same wall that protects them from having the government force them to participate in my faith-based activities also protects me from having someone stop me from participating.
Anytime government enters into the realm of regulating or protecting religious activity, it gets dicey.
Locke was right.
Government has no authority in the realm of personal conscience and that should keep legislatures and courts as far away from the church as they can get.
Kent Bush is the publisher of the Augusta Gazette, the El Dorado Times, and the Andover American newspapers. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org