The Separation of Church and State

brown wooden gavel on brown wooden table

“Congress shall make no law…”

Reports this morning are that the Texas state Senate passed a bill requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

Social media is erupting over “religious oppression” on the one hand, and “separation of church and state” on the other with some arguing such separation does not exist.

While the exact phrase “separation of church and state” does not exist in the Constitution, I would argue that this separation does exist.

The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This makes clear that no state-sponsored religion would exist.  Further, Article VI says “no religious Test shall ever be required” for office holders.

The phrase “separation of church and state” is believed to have originated in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to The Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

In that letter, Jefferson wrote in part:

“Believing with you 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, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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. adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

The Texas legislator that proposed the bill believes the Supreme Court has paved the way for this with the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case.  I’m not a lawyer but this seems ridiculous to me on its face.  That case involved the actions of an individual school coach and those actions were after school – not part of any curriculum.  In other words, the coach’s actions were not sponsored, mandated, or “established” by the state.

I find the argument mandating or banning such a display in a public school represents religious oppression unpersuasive.  It’s easy to simply ignore it at school, and you are free to display it on your livingroom wall at home if you so choose. 

I do find the argument that mandating such a display, in a public building, by a legislative body is a violation of the First Amendment compelling.  I’m well aware that many compelling arguments exist that contend that the Founder’s intentions were (at the time) different than our current interpretation; I simply don’t agree.

The First Amendment protection of “free exercise” would have us tolerating Satanic messages in public buildings and it would have us tolerating government entities mandating such displays – if we ignore the separation of church and state.  Ignoring the separation could result in much worse.  Because there is no way to objectively quantify a “real” religion, any crackpot or crackpot group could come up with any disgusting display and demand that it also be tolerated – anywhere – in the name of free exercise, the same free exercise afforded the Ten Commandments in Texas.

Public schools are the government, they are government owned and operated.  This is not the place for religion.  Religion is, as Jefferson said, “solely between Man & his God.”


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