It’s been at least 20 years since I first heard the old canard of an argument that “there’s no separation of church and state in the Constitution.” I think I first heard it attributed to David Barton, which would make sense, since he doesn’t understand the Constitution, but neither does he fear sharing his misunderstandings.
It was an incorrect statement then, and it’s been incorrect since September 1787. Separation of state and church is woven throughout the Constitution, part of the warp and woof.
I was surprised to discover I’ve not posted this before on this blog. So here’s a slightly-edited version of a response I gave many months ago to someone who made that silly claim, a basic description that I developed years ago to explain the issue, in speeches by members of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution:
Separation of church and state: It’s in the Constitution.
I don’t play a constitutional lawyer on television, I am one*, but it seems to me anyone can read the Constitution and see. Especially if one understands that the Constitution sets up a limited government, that is, as Madison described, one that can do only what is delegated to it. The Constitution is a short document.
Where should you look to find separation of church and state in the Constitution?
First, look in the Preamble. It is made clear that the document is a compact between citizens: “We the people . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution . . .” The usual role of God ordaining (in some western nations) is altered, intentionally. It is not God who establishes this government, but you and I, together. From the first words of the Constitution, there is separation of church and state. The power of our government grows out of a secular compact between you and me, and 308 million other residents of the nation. We have a government created by consent of the governed, as the Declaration of Independence said a just government should be. It is not a government created by the will of God directly (though some, including the Mormons, argue it is divinely inspired). We have no divine right kings or other monarchs. The government is not the grantor of rights from God, but is instead the protector of the rights of citizens, whatever the source of the rights.
Second, look in the key parts of the document itself. Start with Article 1. The legislative branch is given no role in religion; neither is any religion given any role in the legislature. In Article 2, the executive branch gets no role in religion, and religion gets no role in the executive branch. In Article 3, the judicial branch gets no role in religion, and religion gets no role in the judicial branch. In Article 4, the people get a guarantee of a republican form of government in the states, but the states get no role in religion, and religion gets no role in state government. This is, by design of the founders, a perfect separation of church and state.
Third, in Article 6, the convention wrote the hard and fast rule that no religious test can be used for any office in government, federal, state or local, means that no official will have a formal, governmental role in religion, and no religion can insist on a role in any official’s duties.
Fourth, Amendment 1 closes the door to weasling around it: Congress is prohibited from even considering any legislation that might grant a new bureaucracy or a new power to get around the other bans on state and church marriage, plus the peoples’ rights in religion are enumerated.
Fifth: In 1801 the Baptists (!) in Danbury, Connecticut, grew concerned that Connecticut would act to infringe on their church services, or teachings, or right to exist. So they wrote to President Jefferson. Jefferson responded with an official declaration of government policy on what the First Amendment and Constitution mean in such cases. Jefferson carefully constructed the form of the device as well as the content with his Attorney General, Levi Lincoln, to be sure that it would state what the law was. This “letter” is the proclamation. It’s an official statement of the U.S. government, collected in the president’s official papers and not in his personal papers. Make no mistake: Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists was an official act, an official statement of the law of the United States. Jefferson intended it to assuage the Baptists in Danbury, to inform and warn the Connecticut legislatures, and to be a touchstone to which future Americans could turn for information. It was only fitting and proper for the Supreme Court to use the letter in this capacity as it has done several times.
Sixth: The phrase, “separation of church and state” dates back another 100 years and more, to the founding of Rhode Island. It is the religion/state facet of the idea of government by consent of the governed without interference from religious entities, expressed so well in the Mayflower Compact, in the first paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, and carried through in the Constitution (see especially the Preamble, above).
No, the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the Constitution. The principles of separation of church and state are part of the warp and woof, and history, of the document, however. The law is clear, the law was clear, the law has always been clear, and denying the Constitution says what it says, won’t change it or make it go away. You could just as easily point out that the word “democracy” or “democratic” never appears in the document, though we rely on democratic mechanisms and institutions to make it work. You could point out that nowhere does it say that our national government is a republic, though it is. The Constitution doesn’t say “checks and balances,” nor does it say “federalism.” The Constitution doesn’t mention political parties. The Constitution was written before the advent of broadcasting, and makes no mention of radio nor television, nor of the internet — but the First Amendment freedoms apply there anyway. The Constitution doesn’t say “privacy,” though it protects your right to privacy.
You won’t find “separation of church and state” as a phrase in the Constitution. If you read it, you’ll find that the concept of the separation of state and church can’t be taken out of the document, either — it’s a fundamental principle of our government.
More, and Resources:
- U.S. Constitution.net, on stuff not in the Constitution
- U.S. Constitution, at the Bill of Rights Institute (downloadable .pdfs, too)
- While you’re at it, “friend” the Bill of Rights Institute on Facebook — goal is 500 more before January 1, 2011; pass the word around
* A non-practicing one. We have way more than 50,000 lawyers in Texas. That’s enough trouble for one lifetime. Someone has to look out for the welfare of the world.