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Keeping the Government out of Religion

Without the separation of church and state, the government might be able to decide what you can believe.

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Origins

In the 1600s, thousands of English people who didn’t believe the same as the Church of England came to America. In England, they were punished for what they believed. More than 100 years later, Thomas Jefferson argued that the only way that people could ever be free to believe what they want was if the government wasn’t allowed to make any laws about religion at all. The First Amendment guarantees the federal government will make no laws about religion, but that didn’t apply to the state governments until the 14th Amendment.

Legal Debates

It has never been clear how far this protection goes or what limits it might have. Many times, the Supreme Court has had to make a decision. In Reynolds v. United States (1879)George Reynolds argued that his beliefs as a Mormon were violated when the state of Utah prosecuted him for having more than one wife. Polygamy – marrying more than one person – was a crime in Utah, but Reynolds believed he was supposed to have more than one wife as part of his religion. The Supreme Court ruled against Reynolds. He was free to believe that he should have more than one wife, but if actually having more than one wife was a crime regardless of religious belief, then he could still be punished for actually doing it.
Engel v. Vitale (1962) stopped states from making students pray in school. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) that states could give tax money to some religious private schools.

President Donald Trump and group praying

It can be argued that the limits of this separation change with the political beliefs of the time, and especially with the political leaning of the Supreme Court.

Overview

From the different cases listed, it’s clear that the separation of church and state has been debated in every aspect of American life. From schools, marriage, state funding, and even religious practice, the separation of church and state is one part of our democracy that is always evolving. The Puritans and pilgrims first came to North America to escape persecution from the Church of England but, ironically, often punished members of their communities for not sharing their beliefs. Our founding fathers made clear that religious freedom was a necessity. The only way religious freedom could be protected was through the separation of church and state as a protection from the tyranny of the majority – our own democracy.

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Jose Backer, General Assignment Reporter, is a graduate of St. Michael's College and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Political Science. Born and raised in Southern California, he currently resides in the Pasadena area.

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