The separation of church and state is a founding issue of the United States of America, and the most heated debates about it happen in school settings.
When most people think of the separation of church and state, they assume that it means God cannot be mentioned in any public or state facility. However, what the term actually refers to is the distance that is supposed to exist between the nation state and organized religion. Many times this distance has been called into question, especially in schools with the controversy surrounding school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
History of Thought
The idea of separation of church and state started well before it was an American concept. In fact, great thinkers of the past have had punishment from the government inflicted upon them because of the fact that they disrespected or did not practice religion in some way. This caused a sense of unfairness and unrest in many countries older than the United States. Socrates, for example, was executed for many reasons, one of which was his disrespect for the religion of the government.
In Medieval Europe, many monarchs ruled by divine right, or the idea that God had chosen them to rule over their country. This set up the church – especially the Catholic church, which had laws that said the Pope should have authority over the people of a nation – in contention with the “state,” or government. According to one of the profound modern supporters of the separation of church and state, James Madison, Martin Luther was at the forefront of thought in the debate. Luther discussed the “doctrine of two kingdoms,” which were, in fact, a nation state, and organized religion.
History in the United States
The term “separation of church and state” first came from an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists Association. The letter stated: “… I contemplate with sovereign reverence the 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.” Since many early immigrants came here to experience freedom to practice whatever religion they chose, and because the British government at the time was affiliated with religion and we wanted to be as far away from the British model of government as possible, the separation of church and state became a founding principle of our government.
In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This has been called into question many times by individuals and groups, and many Supreme Court cases have cited First Amendment rights in their rulings. It wasn’t until 1947 that the separation of church and state was even considered part of the United States Constitution. It was, in fact, the Supreme Court that actually guaranteed the separation of church and state on many occasions.
Separation of Church and State in Schools
Recently, the most famous debates about the separation of church and state have come out of schools. Schools are required by law to say the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the school day, but since it contains the phrase “under God,” many students do not stand or say the Pledge because of their religious beliefs. In fact, the phrase “under God” was actually added to the Pledge in 1954 during the Cold War. There is also a debate about prayer in schools and whether or not students should be allowed to pray in school. Currently, students are allowed to pray individually and silently, but are not allowed to pray as a group on school grounds.