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What does ‘separation of church and state’ really mean?

It could be one of the most misunderstood political concepts of all time in America.

Mindaugas Kulbis, Associated Press

In halls of government and in various political conversations, the topic of “separation of church and state” arises with reliable frequency. It could be one of the most misunderstood political concepts of all time in America. With the Utah Legislature in session, it seems like a prescient time to clarify the meaning of separation of church and state.

Prior to the time of America’s founding, many countries had national religions, which were supported by tax funds. Today some nations have a sole official religion; other nations have a designated list of official religions which brings government favors; and some nations have no official religion at all or even official hostility toward religion.

To have a national religion with the head of state as the titular leader of the faith, in the early years of our republic, was viewed as distinctly “British” — seen as a slur for several decades after the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Constitution was negotiated and agreed to Sept. 17, 1787. Among those voicing concerns about inadequacies in the original text was Thomas Jefferson, serving as ambassador to France. After receiving a copy of the Constitution from friend and fellow Virginian James Madison, Jefferson’s disappointment over the absence of certain protections was immediate.

“The omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters,” were identified in his reply letter to Madison. After advocates of the Constitution agreed to add specific protections to resolve concerns, the initial Constitution was ratified June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify.

Ten additions to the Constitution were adopted as a single unit Dec. 15, 1791. The first of the amendments included two of Jefferson’s items quoted above. The freedom of religion Jefferson identified went through several iterations before compromise language gave us our current establishment and free exercise clauses: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

From the very beginning the intent was to prohibit a national religion and avoid preferential treatment of one faith over another. However, Congress must stay out of the governance of churches and let churches and individuals worship as they choose.

That is the key distinction: Freedom of religion prevents the government from dictating affairs of churches. It’s a one-way restriction. Churches may exercise another First Amendment right of petitioning government. Churches can legitimately seek to influence government decisions. Without churches applying pressure on the federal and state governments, America may not have enacted civil rights legislation over five decades ago. It might have happened eventually, but religious involvement surely hastened the process.

So what of “separation of church and state?” That misunderstood term came from an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association after they congratulated him on his election as president. Letters from prominent leaders of that era were known to be viewed as policy letters of sorts, and Jefferson’s original draft included some statements that were removed for the final letter sent to the Danbury Baptists. The Library of Congress has both versions.

Presidents prior to Jefferson had frequently declared days of fasting and thanksgiving, a directive Jefferson believed was inappropriate for a government representative. Let us be clear here: Jefferson didn’t mind days of fasting and prayer — just not declared at will by a political figure. In the final letter, Jefferson opined the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Jefferson intended to allay concerns among religious adherents that the federal government and its representatives might meddle in church operations.

The draft letter included statements even more firmly establishing Jefferson’s concept of keeping government out of church business. On advice of political allies — recognizing the letter would be read by people in all parts of the young nation — Jefferson removed some of the draft language to avoid statements that might not have been appreciated by northeastern Americans, even as it might be cheered by Virginians.

Regardless of the version of the Danbury Baptist letter we read, it is clear Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State” was consistent with views that government must not get involved in church governance but that churches have no limitation on being involved in civic decisions and government laws.

Since Jefferson’s time, the Supreme Court has heard many cases about religious freedom. John S. Baker Jr. wrote in the First Amendment Encyclopedia, “The Supreme Court first quoted Jefferson’s reference in Reynolds v. United States (1879), a case in which the Court rejected the claim that the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty exempted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the prohibition of polygamy due to their religious belief (at that time, but no longer) in the duty of polygamy.”

Everson v. Board of Education (1947) in a 5-4 vote became the landmark case in which the establishment clause of the First Amendment was made binding on states. Later cases have relied heavily on Everson’s majority and dissenting opinions. Justice Hugo Black wrote in his majority opinion that the “First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. New Jersey has not breached it here.”

Separation of church and state may always be a place of tension. Rulings against a government are common. Limited government involvement is allowed such as with school busing or school lunch at parochial schools. Very rare is a ruling against a religious organization, such as in the Reynolds case. People of faith and their denominations are free to seek influence in government decisions.

Gene Whitmore is a political scientist, theologian and author.