The topic of “Separation of Church and State” is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the political sphere. I’m setting out in this brief commentary to provide some context on the topic, along with the position of a Constitutionalist.

Some facts:

  • The phrase is not contained in the Constitution (although the average person may think it is).
  • The phrase comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Rev. Roger Williams (of the Danbury Baptists), where Jefferson was borrowing “a wall of Separation” which were words used by Rev. Williams.
  • The purpose and context of the letter was to assure the Danbury Baptists that the federal government would not establish a single denomination of Christianity as the national denomination.
  • The phrase/letter was not about divorcing “church and state” as it is understood or referred to today.

The biggest misunderstanding is not even the concept of the “Separation of Church and State” itself, but a misunderstanding of:

  • federalism
  • the construction of the US Constitution
  • the first 10 Amendments (i.e. the Bill of Rights)

The US Constitution documented the powers/authority delegated to the newly formed federal government (i.e. what the federal government could do). The Bill of Rights documented specifically what the federal government was not allowed to do (i.e. power/authority it didn’t have). The key piece being federal government – not state or municipal governments.  State governments ratified their own state constitutions (most included Declaration/Bill of Rights), which was the authority delegated to the state government by its citizens (along with the limitations on the state government). This gives way to why states retained the authority to enact blue laws or have official state religions. On a related note, this is also why states can limit the gun rights of its citizens, where the Federal government cannot constitutionally do so (there are some caveats to this of course).

So, someone who asserts that the concept of the “Separation of Church and State” is a myth…isn’t necessarily taking the position that they support national a religion or a theocracy. In fact, the constitutionalist position is that the federal government (i.e. US Congress) simply cannot make a law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof (i.e. no federal laws establishing a religion and no federal prohibition of citizens exercising their religion).

It’s also the position of a constitutionalist that the people of a state have the sovereign authority to create laws that support inalienable rights or (unfortunately) trample upon them. An example of religious liberty bumping up against religious tyranny within a state’s realm of authority, is Thomas Jefferson’s attempts to eradicate Virginia’s law forcing Virginia citizens to pay a tax that supported the official state church (even if it was against a person’s conscience). This was a state matter, outside of the federal purview. When tyranny occurs in a state (related to an issue where authority is retained by the state/people), it’s the responsibility of the citizens of that state to stamp out such tyranny, not the responsibility of the federal government.

To summarize, the constitutionalist position is that the federal government is restricted from enacting laws establishing a religion and prohibiting citizens of exercising their religion, but that state governments are not (unless restricted by the state constitution). Further, this position does not support theocracy, nor does it support the idea that the government can or should force people to exercise their faith/religion in a certain way (or even at all).

Joshua Lyons
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