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You often hear people throw around the phrase “separation of church and state,” but do they really know what it means? Does it mean religious ideas should be kept separate from the government? Does it mean people can break the law in the name of religion? The answer to the former is no, but to the latter: it’s complicated. To get to the bottom of these questions, let’s begin by taking a look at where this phrase comes from.
Put in context, the first question becomes easy to answer — this “separation” says nothing about religion staying out of the government, only the government staying out of religion.
For starters, the phrase isn’t present in any American legal document, let alone the Constitution. In fact, the phrase isn’t even a legal term—it originates from a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut back in 1802.
“[The government will] ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State,” Jefferson wrote to the Baptists, addressing their concerns that the government would soon start infringing on their religious freedoms. Here, Jefferson cites the First Amendment as proof that the Baptists — as well as any other religious group — shall maintain full freedom over their religious beliefs and practices. It is from the paraphrasing of the sentence above that the famous phrase was born.
Put in context, the first question becomes easy to answer — this “separation” says nothing about religion staying out of the government, only the government staying out of religion. Answering the second question regarding religious practices that break the law, though, is a much more complicated task.
Reading the First Amendment, it seems clear what the founding fathers meant: “no law” should be made “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion (i.e. the government shouldn’t have any say in religious matters). But this Amendment soon runs into a problem — what happens when the “free exercise” of religion involves breaking a law. To resolve this apparent contradiction, the Supreme Court has to decide how to interpret the Free Exercise Clause. Without getting into the details of Constitutional law, the essence of it as such: a law may interfere with religious practices if the Supreme Court decides that it isn’t targeted towards a religion or religions in general, that its enforcement benefits government interests enough to justify ignoring religious freedoms, and that these interests can’t be achieved in a less harmful way. The issue with these requirements is that they are very subjective, leading to many confusing and even contradictory rulings.
In United States v. Lee, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the Amish were required to participate in the Social Security system despite this payment of taxes going against their religious beliefs. The Court decided that, because the government’s interest in protecting the Social Security system from voluntary participation outweighed the anguish and harm it would cause the Amish community, Amish people were not exempt from compulsory participation. Here, Amish religious beliefs were violated because of their ruled relative unimportance.
Contrasting the previous case is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In this case, the Supreme Court was faced with arbitrating the following dispute — whether a baker could violate anti-discrimination laws by refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding due to his religious beliefs — and after a complicated prosecution process, the Court ruled in favor of the baker.
Ultimately, the logic and reasoning behind these decisions are often confusing and inconsistent, but at least we have a system in which we can civilly handle such disputes — a system that isn’t present in many other countries. The next time someone casually talks about the “separation of church and state,” just know the true meaning of the phrase and recognize how messy the relation between the law and religion is..