I've heard Christians struggle with this concept. They think prayer should be allowed at a school graduation ceremony, but when another person invokes "separation of church and state", the Christian backs down. They don't feel they can argue with the Constitution of the United States.
That is the first misconception. The phrase "separation of church and state" itself does not appear in the United States Constitution. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Their intent was that there be no "Church of America" that every citizen had to belong to and had to pay taxes to support.
So where did this phrase come from?
The phrase "wall of separation between the church and the state" was originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802. His purpose in this letter was to assuage the fears of the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists, and so he told them that this wall had been erected to protect them. The metaphor was used exclusively to keep the state out of the church's business, not to keep the church out of the state's business.
Thomas Jefferson NEVER intended that the government use his words to push religion out of every public forum.
So clearly did Jefferson understand the Source of America's inalienable rights that he even doubted whether America could survive if we ever lost that knowledge. He queried:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?
Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those rights.
Very simply, the "wall" of the Danbury letter was not to limit religious activities in public; rather they were to limit the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions.
Yet it is understandable that modern Christians are unsure of the meaning of this phrase. Our Supreme Court has taken the phrase and applied it antithetically to it's intended meaning.
Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), was a case where the Mr. Lee, principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island, invited a Jewish rabbi to deliver a prayer at the 1989 graduation ceremony, the parents of student Deborah Weisman requested a temporary restraining order seeking to bar the rabbi from speaking. The case went to the U.S Supreme Court.
The Weismans won the case. In the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court preserved previous Supreme Court precedents that sharply limited the role that religion could play in the nation's public schools, based on the Establishment Clause(Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion).
Justice Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion on this case:
"In holding that the Establishment Clause prohibits invocations and benedictions at public school graduation ceremonies, the Court - with nary a mention that it is doing so - lays waste a tradition that is as old as public school graduation ceremonies themselves, and that is a component of an even more longstanding American tradition of nonsectarian prayer to God at public celebrations generally. As its instrument of destruction, the bulldozer of its social engineering, the Court invents a boundless, and boundlessly manipulable, test of psychological coercion..." 505 U.S. 577, 632.
Another example of the Supreme Court applying this phrase incorrectly is when the Supreme Court struck down Ten Commandments displays in courthouses, holding that two exhibits in Kentucky crossed the line between separation of church and state because they promoted a religious message.
This is an INCORRECT APPLICATION of this phrase!
I agree with statements by Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. I am thankful there are people who will stand up for the truth and for the intended meaning of the phrase used by our founding fathers.
"I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute," he told 'This Week' host George Stephanopoulos. "The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country...to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up."
"Through perverse court decisions and years of cultural indoctrination, the elitist, secular Left has managed to convince many in our nation that religion must be driven from public view. The justification is always that someone, somewhere, might possibly be offended or feel uncomfortable living in the midst of a largely Christian society, so all must yield to the fragile sensibilities of the few. The ultimate goal of the anti-religious elites is to transform America into a completely secular nation, a nation that is legally and culturally biased against Christianity.
The notion of a rigid separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers. On the contrary, our Founders’ political views were strongly informed by their religious beliefs. Certainly the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both replete with references to God, would be aghast at the federal government’s hostility to religion. The establishment clause of the First Amendment was simply intended to forbid the creation of an official state church like the Church of England, not to drive religion out of public life.
The Founding Fathers envisioned a robustly Christian yet religiously tolerant America, with churches serving as vital institutions that would eclipse the state in importance. Throughout our nation’s history, churches have done what no government can ever do, namely teach morality and civility. Moral and civil individuals are largely governed by their own sense of right and wrong, and hence have little need for external government. This is the real reason the collectivist Left hates religion: Churches as institutions compete with the state for the people’s allegiance, and many devout people put their faith in God before their faith in the state. Knowing this, the secularists wage an ongoing war against religion, chipping away bit by bit at our nation’s Christian heritage."
Ron Paul, December 30, 2003