“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.”
This is a direct quote from a letter that founding father Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut to assure them that the federal government would not interfere with their religion. This was a worry of the early church in America because they had left the tyrannical rule of England where the Catholic church was the state sponsored church and there were no freedoms to one’s own religion.
You will not find the words “Separation of Church and State” anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, but you hear it often in regard to any religious issue in America. There are, however, principles relating to this separation in the Constitution, and you will also find mention of it in court cases.
Constitutional Separation of Church and State
The founders of the Constitution were well aware of the tyrannical religion they had just escaped in England and didn’t want to repeat that in their newly founded country; therefore, the very first words of the first amendment contained a very important concept:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
This was written to keep the federal government from interfering into your right to the religion of your choosing. It doesn’t matter if you are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or any other religion—the government cannot make laws that prohibit your exercise of religion.
You will notice that this is where the separation stops. There are no further clauses or comments in the Bill of Rights, nor the Constitution, that refer to any power of the Church over the State. Any idea otherwise is a misinterpretation of the First Amendment and its original intent.
Judicial Separation of Church and State
There have been a couple landmark Supreme Court cases that have dealt with this idea of a separation between the Church and the State. The first big case was Everson v. Board of Education in 1947. The 5-4 vote extended the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) down to the State level of government. Prior to this decision, states had been making laws that could benefit one religious organization over another.
In 1971, the 8-1 Lemon v. Kurtzman ruling set up the “Lemon Test” for state laws and whether they violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The threefold test reads:
- The statute must have a secular legislative purpose.
- The principal or primary effect of the statute must not advance nor inhibit religion.
- The statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
Once again, this ruling only affected the government supporting or advancing any particular religion.
In 2017, the Supreme Court issued a 7-2 ruling in the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer case which seemed to apply the principles set forth by Lemon v. Kurtzman. They ruled that the Church could not be exempted from a public benefit or grant strictly because of its religious status. It was determined that the grant they had requested would have been used for a secular purpose (playground) and did not advance religion, nor did it result in excessive government entanglement with religion.
Role of the Church in the State
The Courts and the Constitution are clear that the State should not be involved in advancing the affairs of the Church, but what about the Church being involved in the State affairs? It is common to hear the phrase “Separation of Church and State” used when arguing that members of the clergy cannot endorse any political candidate or party from the pulpit. This issue, however, has no Constitutional or Court basis.
However, there is a separation that has been established for the Church between it and the State. This separation was put in place by the IRS in its tax-exemption regulations. Most churches fall under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) for their tax-exempt status. This code specifies that churches “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
This means that pastors and other members of the clergy cannot speak from the pulpit and endorse a political candidate because he/she would be speaking for the church in his/her endorsement. The IRC prohibits the Church from endorsing a candidate, but it does not prohibit the member of the clergy from endorsing as a member of the general public. If a church officially endorses a candidate for political office, they risk losing their tax-exempt status with the IRS, which would be detrimental to their existence. (Individual pastors are allowed to endorse any political candidate as long as they are not representing their organization.)
The original idea for this article spawned from a daytime TV show in which a well-known New York City pastor, Carl Lentz of Hillsong Church, discussed his approach to politics as a pastor of a church.
In the video above, Joy Behar mentions the “Separation of Church and State law.” She later tries to walk it back a little by mentioning the tax-exempt status, but she still gets it wrong. This is not a law; it is a code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing a particular candidate from the pulpit. The first amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise clause do not restrict a pastor or a church or any religious organization from endorsing anything in politics. Congress has not passed any laws regarding this issue because that law would not stand up to the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.
In summary, Congress cannot advance any religion with laws that would benefit a religious organization. Pastors can endorse any political candidate they want from any location that they want, without breaking the law. Those same pastors, however, could put their church’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy. There are many, many other examples of religious symbols that the Court has allowed (Ten Commandments) and disallowed (Cross) on public property, with each having its own reason for being allowed or rejected. Overall, many issues that aren’t cut and dry will likely be subject to judicial review from the highest court of the land.