The idea of keeping government and religion separate in America is a key part of the Bill of Rights as part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Recently in politics, people have become worried that this ideal is being left behind. With the possible addition of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, religion is a hot topic in conversations, from the courts to the presidential election. But discussion of Barrett’s religion and suitability for the court is not the only instance in which the separation of church and state should be examined.
The COVID-19 pandemic has recently brought the separation of church and state back into the picture. According to The Atlantic, “Under the Payment Protection Program, which has allocated $669 billion in subsidies to support small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, the government has extended funding to churches and other houses of worship.” This could set a dangerous precedent of helping to bail out churches or other houses of worship in crisis.
Some may argue a pandemic creates unprecedented times and challenges that require different rules. But, churches have been self-sufficient and operated without government assistance before, as in the 2008 recession. Even the Catholic Church has openly expressed its concern about receiving help from the government. In an article entitled “Religion and Liberty: volume 30 article 2, Should the Catholic Church Accept Government Handouts?”, author Dustin Siggins poses the question, “Can the faithful count on their bishops to exert the independence that marked the saints—especially if they’re taking government money?”
In 1791, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was written, giving American citizens the right to free speech, religious liberty, petition, assembly and press. The right to religious freedom was originally designed to keep the government out of the church, not necessarily the other way around. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, said that “an authentic Christian church” cannot be created if “the wilderness of the world” tries to invade the “garden of the church.” As the country grew more established, bigger names came out in support of the separation of church and state for legal reasons. In his 1802 letter to the Danforth Baptist Association, Thomas Jefferson argued for the separation of church and state. Jefferson said that no state can endorse religion due to taxation. If a state were to establish a religion in that area, then the citizens of that state would be taxed to help keep this now governing body in good shape. Jefferson and James Madison claimed that forcing taxpayers to fund one specific religion that might not be their personal choice would be going directly against the First Amendment and its promise to protect the right of religious liberty.
One glaring argument that always rears its head on this topic is that America was founded as a Christian country. While this is debated among historians, the general consensus is that no, it was not. According to The Washington Post, “Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S. Constitution, the country’s charter documents, are partial to Christianity. The Declaration acknowledges the authority of “the Laws of Nature” and the deists’ beloved “Nature’s God.” Not even originalists, those who directly interpret the nation's founding documents, namely the Constitution, can say that the U.S. is inherently a Christian nation based purely on these documents.
Historically, the separation of church and state was established to preserve the church, but in a modern context it is about protecting the citizens of the United States. If those in authority make laws based on their own religious beliefs, that forces others to follow laws based on things that they may not believe in. One of the biggest conversations that most clearly demonstrates this is abortion access. Some religious people believe that abortion is wrong and should only be accessed in a specific situation or not at all. If a law is then enacted setting up this limited access to abortion by a religious politician, that forces people who do not practice that same religion to follow its rules or face legal repercussions. Under the First Amendment, citizens have the right to religious freedom, thus they should not be forced to adhere to rules decided in a religious context. In the same way, the Payment Protection Program should not force Americans to put their government dollars toward supporting religious organizations.
Under the First Amendment, you can practice your religion. However, it is vital to preserve the importance of the separation of church and state.