Separation of Church and State:
A First Amendment Primer

Separation: Good for Government, Good for Religion

The right to freedom of religion is so central to American democracy that it was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution along with other fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

In order to guarantee an atmosphere of absolute religious liberty, this country's founders also mandated the strict separation of church and state. Largely because of this prohibition against government regulation or endorsement of religion, diverse faiths have flourished and thrived in America since the founding of the republic. Indeed, James Madison, the father of the United States Constitution, once observed that "the [religious] devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state."

Americans are still among the most religious people in the world. Yet the government plays almost no role in promoting, endorsing or funding religious institutions or religious beliefs. Free from government control -- and without government assistance -- religious values, literature, traditions and holidays permeate the lives of our citizens and, in their diverse ways, form an integral part of our national culture. By maintaining the wall separating church and state, we can guarantee the continued vitality of religion in American life.

Violations of the Separation of Church and State

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black best expressed the purpose and function of the Establishment Clause when he said that it rests "on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion." Some Americans reject this dictum, promoting the idea that the government should endorse the religious values of certain members of the community to the exclusion of others. In fact, such violations of the separation of church and state take place with disturbing frequency in American government, at local, state and Federal levels. Recent incidents include the following:

  • An Alabama judge regularly opens his court sessions with a Christian prayer. Further, he has refused to remove a plaque containing the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. Alabama Governor Fob James has threatened to call in the Alabama National Guard to prevent the plaque's removal.
  • Local municipalities have erected nativity scenes, crosses, menorahs and other religious symbols to the exclusion of those of other faiths.
  • The Board of Aldermen of a Connecticut city has opened its sessions with a prayer that beseeches citizens to "elect Christian men and women to office so that those who serve will be accountable . . . to the teachings of Jesus Christ . . . ."
  • A variety of religious groups are demanding that their faith-based social service programs receive public funding although these programs engage in aggressive proselytizing and religious indoctrination.
  • On the "National Day of Prayer," local authorities acting in their official capacities have led citizens in sectarian prayer.

Public Schools: Teaching Democracy, Not Dogma

Public schools play a central role in American life. They mold children into good citizens by teaching the core values of pluralistic democracy: freedom and tolerance. Our public schools must therefore be hospitable to students of all faiths and no faith. Public schools should teach an understanding of and respect for diversity, as well as a spirit of acceptance and inclusion. They should also help develop citizens who respect our nation's legacy of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

Public school teachers rightly function as important authority figures in the lives of their students. But, under the Constitution, their authority may not extend to matters of religious belief. According to the Supreme Court, the First Amendment requires that public school students never be given the impression that their school officially sanctions religion in general or prefers a specific faith in particular. Further, students must never feel coerced by peer or public pressure into adhering to the dictates of any religion.

Contrary to the claims of opponents of church-state separation, public school students enjoy very broad rights to act in accordance with their religious values and to practice their religious beliefs while at school. From words of grace whispered quietly before a meal in a cafeteria to prayer groups gathering before school at the flagpole, every day all over the country, students engage in constitutionally protected religious expression on public school grounds.

Despite the Supreme Court's clear rules against school sponsorship of religious activity and endorsement of religion, the religious right and others opposed to the separation of church and state have repeatedly attempted to inject sectarianism into the schools. For example, they have consistently sought laws mandating a moment of silence and the teaching of the biblical account of creation as an alternative to science. Imposition of an organized moment of silence is almost always unconstitutional since both the purpose and effect of a moment of silence are plainly to advance religion. Further, the Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to require science teachers to teach creationism or to forbid them from teaching evolution.

Violations of Church-State Separation in Our Public Schools

Blatant violations of church-state separation continue to take place in our public schools.  Among the more recent such violations have been the following:

  • In Alabama, a family of Jewish children was repeatedly harassed after complaining about the promotion of Christian beliefs in their public schools. One of the students was forced to write an essay on "Why Jesus Loves Me." At a mandatory school assembly, a Christian minister condemned to hell all people who did not believe in Jesus Christ.
  • Elsewhere in Alabama, officials in the DeKalb County school system blatantly disobeyed a district court ruling that forbade religious activity in school such as the broadcast of Christian prayers over the school public address system and the distribution of Gideon Bibles on school property. The court has now been forced to issue an injunction to compel the schools to abide by its earlier ruling.
  • A Jewish student at a public school in Utah was required to sing religious songs and participate in Mormon religious worship activities as part of a choir class. After she voiced objections to these practices, the student was humiliated in class by the teacher and became the target of anti-Semitic harassment by her classmates.
  • Some otherwise well-intentioned advocates for school reform are promoting initiatives that would channel public funds to schools that engage in religious indoctrination. In their various forms -- "vouchers," "school choice," "hope and opportunity scholarships" -- these programs would force Americans to do something contrary to our very notion of democracy: to pay taxes to support the propagation of religious dogma.

What You Can Do

The best way for citizens to protect their constitutional right to be free from religious coercion is to become educated, and to educate others, about the separation of church and state. Local officials need to understand that they may not use their authority, government funds or government property to promote religion, even if the majority in the community approves. School administrators and teachers need to understand that public schools should teach the ideals of American democracy, not religious pedagogy.

If you are concerned that a violation of the separation of church and state is taking place in your community, or if you have questions regarding the Establishment Clause, you may contact your local ADL Regional Office.

2001 Anti-Defamation League