More “Separation of Church and State” Issues

Once again, the idea of the separation of church and stately is grossly misunderstood, mis-applied and mis-used. In a news article on, Bill Bumpas writes about a problem at a Chicago school talent show. The problem? Two girls wanted to perform a song with Christian lyrics.

According to the article, Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver reported that “[w]hen it was learned that the song they wanted to sing was ‘Call on Jesus,’…”the school principal and superintendent said that it was religious, it had religious overtones and they were advised by counsel that – – quote – – ‘the separation of church and state’ required them to eliminate such material from the student talent show.” (emphasis mine)

OK, really? Do we actually know what the separation of church and state is all about? Do people actually recognize, anymore, what the first amendment actually is, what and who it protects and why? I mean, seriously!

The purpose of the first amendment was actually to protect churches from the state, not the other way around. If anyone happens to remember something from high school American history class, you may remember that part of the reason the colonists left England for the “new world” was in order to practice their religious beliefs without being restricted by the government (or king) and forced to adhere to a government- (or monarch-) imposed religion.

On the flip side, it is a serendipity that this amendment also ensures that the church cannot dictate government policy. However, that was not, from what I’ve read about it, the main goal of the amendment. The main goal was to ensure that the government could not force people to adhere to a particular religion.

Now, how does this apply here? Well, by allowing two female students to sing a song that espouses their own personal religious beliefs, the school (as a governmental agency)  is not “sponsoring” any particular religion. The school doesn’t have to comment on anything regarding these girls’ beliefs at all or in any way. Now, if the were to comment on these beliefs, whether to confirm or deny them, that would start to look like a violation of the “separation of church and state.”

This is not the first time I’ve seen an article or heard about a story in which a public school official attempted (or succeeded at) preventing a member of the student body (who, by the way, does not represent a government agency in the sense of having any legal authority) from making any statement that in any way makes reference to their own personal faith. The first amendment is not about the separation of individuals and state. It is to ensure that the local, state and federal governments (not necessarily the individuals who make up the government) cannot force citizens to adhere to a prescribed religion.

Is this really so difficult to understand? Is it that hard? Really?

If we’re not preventing girls from singing about Jesus at a school, we’re trying to prevent a Christian concert from being held on a military base or keeping a valedictorian from mentioning their faith at a commencement speech or stopping private citizens from praying together on the steps of the United States Supreme Court, we’re making some other insanely hypersensitive ploy to keep God out of everything, always, everywhere.

People, let’s please learn to better understand what separation of church and state means. Particularly, let’s make sure we understand what it meant to the original authors. Creating legislation to force a religion upon the citizens of the United States is galaxies away from a couple of girls singing a song that mentions Jesus in a local school talent show.

Rant complete….for now.

Grace, love and peace.

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  1. OBAMA:Where do you move forward with that?This is soitnhmeg that I’m sure I’d have serious debates with my fellow Christians about. I think that the difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and prostelytize. There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re going to hell.FALSANI:You don’t believe that?OBAMA:I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity.That’s just not part of my religious makeup.Part of the reason I think it’s always difficult for public figures to talk about this is that the nature of politics is that you want to have everybody like you and project the best possible traits onto you. Oftentimes that’s by being as vague as possible, or appealing to the lowest commong denominators. The more specific and detailed you are on issues as personal and fundamental as your faith, the more potentially dangerous it is.

  2. @rita

    Thank you for your comments.

    There is a lot there, and I want to make sure that I understand each of your points completely. To start with, can you clarify what you mean when you mention the “man who is nasty and mean wants to rid the world of all evil people like presidents, muslims, and world leaders?”

    That statement is somewhat confusing to me as you attribute a quality (evil) to two “offices” which people occupy rather than an actual person or people. You also mention Muslims in that list and I’m unclear how that ties in, particularly with the other to groups you mentioned.


  3. i can see a pattern with sin bashers, claiming to be
    christians. the man who is nasty and mean wants to rid
    the world of all evil people like presidents, muslims,
    and world leaders. the other man who wants to convict
    people of sin and make them pay for it. as is said in
    one blogger “all sin must be paid for”..this is a sick
    mind, and because of his sins, he must make all other
    people pay for theirs. to claim to be a christian and
    save lost souls, when in truth hate others because their
    beliefs are not the same as yours is hypocracy. his words
    on his blog are self evident and you would have to be
    blind not to see the truth of them.

  4. @Doug,

    I think, with that then, we are in agreement. What you refer to as “religious freedom” in your first paragraph, I simply insert the label “church.” The reason for that is that, while the text specifically seems to focus on individual religious freedom, the “church” is, by definition, a group of individuals expressing their shared religious beliefs together.

    So, it sounds like we have come to a point at which we can agree.

    Thanks for your input and insight!

    Grace, love and peace.

  5. The primary purpose of the First Amendment religion clauses is not to protect churches or government, but rather to protect religious freedom. The free-exercise clause does this directly by constraining the government from prohibiting individuals from freely exercising their religions. The establishment clause does this indirectly by constraining government from promoting or otherwise taking steps to establish any religion, thus assuring that individuals are free to exercise their religions without fearing the government will favor the religions of others and thus disfavor theirs.

    Some who nonetheless would like to use government to promote their religion have argued that the First Amendment works only in one direction–to protect churches from government, but not the other way around. This, they suppose, would leave them (and churches) free to insinuate their religion into government and thereby effectively establish it as the nation’s religion. To the extent that the First Amendment prevents that, it can be said to protect government from churches.

    Separation of church and state does not prevent citizens from making decisions and voicing opinions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. In this context, the principle of separation of church and state does, though, constrain government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary purpose must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

  6. @Doug,

    I haven’t heard of David Barton and my thoughts on this are not attributed to his writings. Rather, in reading the text of the amendment itself, and further reading both the letter from the Danbury Baptist Association as well as the response from Thomas Jefferson, I am still unclear as to how your formed your conclusions.

    Again, I’m not arguing that the church should control the government or that it even can. My point, simply, is that taken in the context of what was written, I see nothing to indicate an explicit prohibition of the effect of the church on the government. Rather, the only explicit claim is that there can be no government legislation concerning religious practice.

    I’d be interested to hear how you draw your conclusions that the amendment was intended to protect the government from the church.


  7. The “one direction” wall idea was popularized in the 1980s by David Barton, a religious right activist notorious for fabrication. As revealed by Chris Rodda’s meticulous analysis, zealotry more than fact shapes his work, which is riddled with shoddy scholarship and downright dishonesty. See Chris Rodda, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History (2006). She presents Barton’s claims, reviews the evidence and explanations he offers, and then shines a bright light on the evidence omitted, misinterpreted, or even made up by Barton, all with documentation and references so complete one can readily assess the facts for one’s self without the need to take either Barton’s or Rodda’s word for it.

    The irony is that, by knowingly resorting to lies, this would-be champion of a religious right version of history reveals his fears that the real facts fall short of making his case.

  8. @Doug,

    I’d be interested in getting some clarification about what you mean by having no basis in history, law or logic.

    Also, one correction…I made a typo saying the amendment protects the government from the state. I meant to say from the church.


  9. The notion that the separation of church and state works only in “one direction”–i.e., it serves to protect churches from government, but not government from churches–has no basis in history, law, or logic. Indeed, the notion is self-contradictory: If any church is free to influence and control government and thereby achieve a favored status, all churches are at risk of falling into disfavor with government and facing discriminatory treatment. One of the primary aims of the First Amendment is to prevent just that.

    As you recognize, it is important to distinguish “individual” from “government” speech on religion. The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to exercise their religions–publicly and privately–and constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Not knowing the details of the student-singing story you mention, I’m not in a position to say how the principle should apply there; from your description, though, it appears this is individual rather than government speech.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

  10. Dave,

    We’ll probably have to disagree on your first point. The amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    the reason for the religious oppression they left England to get away from was because of the king who established the church of his desire. The church was not the cause, the king (I.e. “government”) was.

    Now, To your point, the amendment does also protect the government from the state, but mainly only in the sense that any religious faction cannot impose it’s own religion through legislation.

    As for the concert, I fail to see how allowing a concert is “endorsing” a religion.

    Sounds like we agree more than we disagree, though.

    Grace, love and peace.

  11. If, from what you’ve read about it, the First Amendment wasn’t put in place to prevent religion from dictating government policy, then you admittedly haven’t read much about it. In fact, you just ended up contradicting yourself. If we originally left England to escape being forced to adhere to a monarch imposed religion, how is that not religion dictating law? The founding fathers put this amendment into place to prevent the church (any church, even the majority) from influencing government policy and law-making because those laws and policies are enforced on the people. Just because it’s YOUR religious views doesn’t make it any better to let them influence government.
    Now, I agree that preventing the girls from singing is overstepping that line quite a bit, and I firmly believe that if the family challenges the school they’ll win. Not allowing a child to express their beliefs in a public, non-political function is, to me, the same as enforcing a belief system. The Christian concert should have been moved from the military base, that is a government facility and therefore cannot endorse a religion by hosting the concert. But the school talent show is not a government event and the teachers are not sponsoring or providing support for any of the acts there, so I don’t think it falls under the “protection” of that particular law. You can’t have school-designated prayer time, but you also can’t tell a student that they are not allowed to pray while at school. I believe this falls into the same category.

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