In the early 17th century, thousands of English Puritans arrived in the New England region to escape religious persecution and accusations of heresy from the Church of England back home. The Puritans were mostly religious refugees and sought to practice their form of religion considered too radical for the Church of England. More than a century later, despite the importance and dominance of religion in American life, Thomas Jefferson argued that the only way to truly guarantee the freedom of religion desired by so many was to separate it from legislative governance altogether. This set the basis for the term separation of church and state, forming from “a wall of separation” that would form naturally if no law respecting an establishment of religion were implemented.
For decades, states had asserted that religion was the root of happiness for many, but the fear of a tyrannical government dominating America likely made the people understand the necessity of this separation. The separation of church and state was unofficially implemented as part of the First Amendment with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Until then, the only time religion had been mentioned on any legal documents related to the federal government was in Article 6 of the Constitution, stating that “no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.” Thomas Jefferson was influential in the push for the separation of church and state as a founder, with his letters to the Danbury Baptists regarding the First Amendment’s meaning and importance being used to decide Supreme Court cases generations later.
When the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, the religious protections granted did not necessarily apply on the state level. The state could still fund churches, blasphemy was forbidden with the risk of imprisonment, and politicians in many states still had to acknowledge their belief in God. Religion was undoubtedly an essential aspect of American life. Yet, the concept of the separation of powers on the state level wouldn’t be applied until the 20th century with the adoption of the 14th Amendment. This Amendment was adopted to protect from the “arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property by the government.” Ultimately, the separation of church and state would come to represent not only the freedom to practice religion but freedom from religion as well.
There have been many legal battles over the validity of religious beliefs concerning the public good and civil rights in general. Reynolds v. United States (1879) was an appeal filed by George Reynolds, a Mormon, who argued that his religious beliefs as a Mormon were being infringed upon by the state of Utah for the practice of polygamy, the marriage of multiple spouses. Reynolds would ultimately be found guilty, with the Supreme Court deciding that while the government cannot regulate belief, it is still allowed to punish what it perceives as criminal activity, regardless of the activity’s basis in religious beliefs.
“A party’s religious belief cannot be accepted as a justification for his committing an overt act, made criminal by the law of the land.”
Torcaso v. Watkins (1961) was a Supreme Court case that prohibited the implementation of religious tests for public office on the state and federal level. Until that point, Maryland’s Constitution required the declaration of a belief in God for politicians to hold office in the state. Engel v. Vitale (1962) made state implementations of official prayer illegal in public schools, ruling that the state was mandating religious belief through its legislation. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) that states could be allowed to direct public money to some religious private schools as part of their broad school voucher programs.
Ultimately, there has been much back and forth over the limits of separation of church and state. It can be argued that the boundaries of this tenet vary with the political beliefs of the time, and especially with the political leaning of the Supreme Court.
From the various 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 of the essential characteristics 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 that did not share their beliefs. Our founding fathers made clear that religious freedom was a necessity in an era of religious persecution, and that 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.