By George Kane
“The separation of church and state is nowhere in the constitution.” That’s a favorite mantra of conservative Christians that they are always eager to repeat. On any day, if you undertake a google search for news of church/state separation, you are certain to find an editorial, commentary or letter to the editor stating this as if this were some little-known, everywhere misunderstood fact. Of course, neither is democracy mentioned in the constitution, nor consent of the governed, nor practically any other political value cherished by our nation’s founders. But the separation of church and state is spelled out in the first two clauses of the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause is the very first, stating that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. It is followed by the Free Exercise Clause, quote: “nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Conservative Christian authors will usually point out that the metaphorical “wall of separation between church and state” was first used by Thomas Jefferson, in reply to a letter from Baptist ministers in Danbury, Connecticut. Responding to fears that the government might be hostile to their faith, Jefferson wrote:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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.
Conservative Christians often claim that Jefferson meant only that an individual’s religion is protected from interference by the government, not that the government is prohibited from allowing the dominant religion to imbue its claims with the force of law. But Jefferson made this point clear when he quoted not just the free exercise clause, but the Establishment Clause also.
Jefferson understood that the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause are inseparable, like two sides of a coin. Both are required to protect the conscience of the individual from the coercion of the state. Religious freedom can only exist not only when free exercise is guaranteed; it requires also that government not exhibit a preference for anyone’s religious opinions over those of any other citizen. Other speakers today will mention many battles in the ongoing assault on Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation; I will mention only the most immediate. Are we, as Americans, truly free from government coercion of our religious conclusions if our government calls upon all citizens to devote a day to prayer to God; and further defines that God by authorizing a committee to organize the official events of that day, a committee that selects as speakers only those who pray to the God of conservative Protestant churches? Certainly not.
The respect of government for the religious conscience of all of its citizens requires that it remain silent in questions of faith. Only a secular government can honestly guarantee freedom of religion. A Day of Prayer can never be a unifying patriotic event, because religion is by its nature divisive. And so we are here today, not as an aggrieved minority, fearful of persecution. We are here on this Day of Reason to insist on the First Amendment rights of all Americans.