Separation of church and state has been a feature of American democracy for over two centuries. As Thomas Jefferson predicted, that separation has served both the state and organized religion well.
The Church of England was the official religion of the colony of Virginia. As the British departed, the bureaucracy of the Church of England left with them. Virginia considered establishing a Church of Virginia in its place. Instead, Virginia continued collecting taxes that had supported the Church of England and applied that money to a free public education system so every Virginian could read, think and support a church according to their own conscience.
That decision was a breath-taking departure from convention. Its widespread acceptance led to our Constitution including only two references to religion: 1) “… no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States…” and 2) “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” To this day, Western democracies the world over bear the imprint of that decision.
As a new year and a new administration unfold, we should take this opportunity to renew our dedication to the separation of church and state.
PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS: The public purse should not support private religious institutions, including religious schools. Public money should be applied exclusively to public purposes. If I take my neighbor’s tax money to support my church or my church’s school, then my neighbor will soon be asking for my tax money to support their school. Thomas Jefferson was right: It is better for both government and religion that we each support our chosen religious institutions from our own pockets, and let public money be applied only to public institutions.
GOVERNMENT CONTRACTORS: If it is unconstitutional for government to favor one religion over another, then it is equally unacceptable for government contractors to do so. Government should not be able to legitimize discrimination by outsourcing the work. Child adoption services and social services run by religious organizations on behalf of the government should abide by the same rules that government must follow. Private institutions are certainly free to offer services to the public as they see fit, but should not be subsidized with citizens’ tax money if they do not treat all citizens equally.
STATE-SPONSORED PRAYER: Nobody wants government telling them how or when to pray. It is perfectly okay to designate time in school or public events for individual prayer or contemplation, or enable voluntary meetings before and after school. It is not okay for government authorities to dictate religious practices. Mandatory prayer led by government officials is simply unacceptable.
CORPORATE RELIGION: American employers are generally required to provide health insurance covering reproductive care for full-time employees. Allowing a company to “opt out” based on the founder’s religious beliefs opens up a bottomless can of worms. It is absurd to classify publicly owned companies with many diverse employees as just Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, with their own set of legal exclusions. Consider if a company declared itself to be a follower of KKK, Al Qaeda or Nazi philosophy and demanded privileges based on those views. The answer is that all American companies have the same safety, employment, business and environmental obligations.
JOHNSON AMENDMENT: Under the Johnson Amendment, churches can choose to be tax-exempt or to endorse political candidates, but not both. If you want to see the corrupting influence of politics on religion, look no further than Liberty University and its ex-president Jerry Falwell Jr. Falwell became a king-maker of sorts, garnering fame and fortune. But after several scandalous events involving private yachts, a pool boy, infidelity and lurid photographs, Falwell resigned. He sued Liberty University for defamation.
Politics has a corrosive influence on religion. Religious influence on government makes it coercive. As Thomas Jefferson explained, it is better for both religion and the state when they are separated.
We all want both a strong state and healthy religious organizations. This is part of what makes America great. We must remind ourselves, however much we might support our favorite religious institution, that our government must not favor one religion over another.
It is the quintessential conservative position that we get to choose our religious beliefs without government coercion.