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Election Focus 2004

Separation of Church and State in the U.S.
Courts, politicians continue to debate meaning
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," reads the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This clause has been interpreted to mean that the government of the United States -- unlike Great Britain and other European countries -- may not declare one religion as the national religion of the United States nor support one religion over another. However, this clause is still much debated today, and the Supreme Court of the United States is often asked to clarify the meaning of what is known as the Establishment Clause and the issue of separation of church and state.

It was not until 1802 that the phrase "separation of Church and State" became synonymous with the Establishment Clause. Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase in a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association in which Jefferson defended his decision to not proclaim national days of fasting and thanksgiving, as the two presidents before him -- Washington and Adams -- had done.

The Constitution states that Congress "should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof'; thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State, " he wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court and other U.S. courts have been continually asked to interpret the clause. The benchmark case for all later decisions regarding religious liberty is Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that direct government assistance to religious schools was unconstitutional. The majority opinion outlined a test -- known as the "Lemon Test" -- for deciding when a law violates the Establishment Clause. According to the decision, a law involving religion is constitutional if it has a secular (non-religious) purpose, is neutral towards religion (neither for or against it) and does not result in "excessive entanglements" between government and religion.

"A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some," said former Justice Harry A. Blackmun in his decision in the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in the case Lee v. Weisman. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that prayers during school graduation violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In the most recent decision regarding the separation of church and state on June 14, the Supreme Court allowed the phrase "one nation, under God" (a phrase that was added to the pledge in 1954 during the cold war) to remain in the Pledge of Allegiance -- a daily ritual for millions of U.S. school children across the country -- thereby reversing a district court decision that stated that the phrase "under God" in the pledge constituted "a profession of religious belief" in public schools and therefore violated the Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court, however, did not rule on the actual issue of whether or not the pledge violated the establishment clause, but rather ruled that the man who brought the suit on behalf of his daughter did not have "standing," which is the legal right to bring a case to the court. As a result of the ruling, the Supreme Court left the Constitutional question unresolved, at least for the time being.

Election Focus/June 16, 2004 Adobe Document