Frequently Asked Questions
Where does "separation of church and state" appear in the
The concept is found in the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . ." The Amendment does not contain the literal phrase, "separation of church and state," but that is its meaning. Both chief architects of the Constitution -- James Madison and Thomas Jefferson -- agreed on that and used the phrase freely.
In any case, "separation of church and state" is only a useful distillation of the Constitution's intent. The words "fair trial" are absent from the Constitution as well, but no one denies that it is a fundamental American principle. So, too, with "separation of church and
Didn't Jefferson use the phrase in a trivial context?
Jefferson's best-known use of "separation of church and state" was in a letter that summarized his thinking on the First Amendment. He was careful to have his Attorney General review the letter since he meant it to sow "useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted."
Wasn't the United States founded as a Christian nation?
Some of the first European settlers came here to practice their interpretations of the Christian religion, and most of the early colonies had official state religions. That practice was not adopted at the Constitutional Convention, however, and every attempt to include official recognition of Christianity in the United States Constitution was defeated.
The secular character of the new nation was quickly affirmed in the Treaty of Tripoli (1797). This document, negotiated under George Washington and signed under John Adams, flatly states that "The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
Hasn't the Supreme Court ruled that the United States is a Christian
No. One 19th-century Supreme Court decision included the statement "this is a Christian nation," but the phrase was used in dicta, a legal term meaning mere personal opinion without the force of law. The decision has only been referred to once in over 100 years of subsequent opinions.
Isn't the First Amendment intended only to forbid a national church?
The Framers of the Constitution considered and rejected First Amendment language solely addressed to the question of a national religion. In addition, both the House of Representatives and the Senate rejected language allowing "multiple establishments" and "non-preferentialism" (state funding of many religions equally). The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution is designed to prevent state religion in any form.
Isn't the First Amendment intended only to keep government out of
religion, not religion out of government?
The Founders argued that the First Amendment would protect both religion and government. Madison specifically warned against the influence of powerful churches on the state. Jefferson believed it unworthy of religion to coerce belief through state power.
Has the ban on school prayer led to social decay?
America is experiencing a period of unprecedented social change, and we are certainly more aware of certain problems than ever before. But if some indicators of social health have declined, others have risen. It is a logical fallacy to claim that, simply because they follow it in time, either trend results from the school prayer decisions.
Further, America is just as religious a country now as it was when school prayer was a regular part of the public school curriculum. There is no evidence to suggest that the ban on school-sponsored prayer has led to a decline in religious values.
Didn't all public schools sponsor prayer and Bible reading prior to
the early 1960s?
Many states had found such practices unconstitutional well before the Supreme Court did. It was clear by the early 1960s that a voluntary phase-out of such practices was well under
Isn't secular humanism the established religion of the public
The courts have repeatedly ruled that the prohibition on state-established religion includes "a religion of secularism." The idea that official neutrality towards religion constitutes a belief system of its own is a propaganda device of those opposed to separation of church and state.