Magazine article Church & State

The Good Wall: Why We Need Church-State Separation More Than Ever

Magazine article Church & State

The Good Wall: Why We Need Church-State Separation More Than Ever

Article excerpt

There has been a lot of talk about walls lately. Some Americans support President Donald Trump's plan to erect a barrier at the Southern border, and others do not. While that debate rages on, we are concerned about another wall, a metaphorical one, the importance of which can't be denied--the wall of separation between church and state.

Even as he pursues construction of a border wall, Trump, in cahoots with his Religious Right allies, is hard at work tearing down the church-state wall. His actions could not be more misguided.

Trump seeks to undo hundreds of years of history. Colonial-era religious-liberty pioneer Roger Williams first invoked the idea of a "hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world."

More than 150 years later, Thomas Jefferson crafted the metaphor of the First Amendment creating a "wall of separation between church and state" in his famous letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association. There is no evidence that Jefferson knew of Williams' writings, but their parallel thinking is striking. Both men were committed to religious freedom and knew that only a distance between church and state could protect that principle.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1879 endorsed Jefferson's metaphor. Noting the key role Jefferson played in securing religious freedom in Virginia, the court observed that his metaphor "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured."

In 1947's Everson v. Board of Education, the high court called for a high and firm church-state wall, ruling, "[N]either a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. …

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