While Thomas Jefferson's phrase, "separation of church and state," is never clearly stated in the Constitution, Christopher Weaver, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern State University, said the founder's ideas directly influenced James Madison as he penned the First Amendment.
"The First Amendment isn't as explicit as Jefferson might have phrased it. The language we have legally provides restrictions on government: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'" said Weaver.
He said Jefferson's stance on the separation of church and state was much more explicit than Madison's, so many legal challenges U.S. courts have undertaken derive from the ambiguity of the Constitution. Most courts have interpreted the First Amendment through the lens of Jefferson. Weaver gave the example of Reynolds v. United States.
In this case, the court deemed the First Amendment supported a separation of church and state. Jefferson's influence on the courts was so great that both the majority and dissenting sides cited his work.
"It is funny that the court has looked to Jefferson to understand the Constitution's meaning, even though he was not a member of Congress at the time the Constitution was written," said Weaver.
He explained that Jefferson was an outlier among the Founders because he refrained from calling for days of prayer, which other presidents had done.
"He would have been uncomfortable with state endorsement of religious celebrations, because he didn't participate in organized religion," Weaver said.
Madison's Jeffersonian influence is also seen in Article 6 Clause 3, which states: "All executive and judicial officers, both of the United States of the several states, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Weaver indicated several states require, in their constitutions, an affirmation of God before being elected to public office to serve as a witness, but these aren't enforced because they are unconstitutional.
"There is a constant tension to push, Christianize, or inject religion into state governments. There has been a recent uptick to this in the past few decades, particularly since the 1950s," said Weaver.
Weaver cited a number of cases wherein federal courts have supported separation of church and state. In one case, West Virginia State Board v. Barnett, Jehovah's Witnesses refused to salute the flag because they saw it as an act of idolatry, and the court sided with them.
Another case took place when the city of Hialeah in Florida created an ordinance to target a specific church. The Santeria Church was formed as a syncretism of Roman Catholicism and Yoruba religion, and they practiced the slaughtering of chickens. In Church of the Lukumi Babalu Ave v. City of Hialeah, the court questioned the ordinance that prohibited the slaughtering of animals, except for food. In other circumstances, the ordinance may have passed, but he explained that "because the Supreme Court found that it had a religious intent, they struck it down. The intent of the ordinance was to burden a religious group."
Rev. Tammy Schmidt of the First Presbyterian Church also affirms the necessity of the separation of church and state.
"One of the biggest things I've understood under a contentious leadership is that it is vitally necessary that church and state remain separated," she said.
Schmidt said established religions serve as safeguards in promoting religious liberties, and she deemed it the church's responsibility to speak up at times when secular leadership has violated principles the church believes to be wrong. To her, this is most successful when there is a clear separation of church and state. She referenced the Barmen Declaration (1934), written by Karl Barth, who started the Confessing Church, which repudiated a doctrine, created by the Reich Church Administration, and upheld by German Christians, that elevated Hitler to the status of a prophet.
"That was a massive and critical error," said Schmidt.
Many among the Confessing Church's leadership were sent to concentration camps, including Martin Niemöller, Henrich Grüber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
"The church has every right to criticize leadership if it denies humanity under Christ's realm. It is the role of the church to exercise its freedoms," said Schmidt.
She believes churches can only adequately serve as whistleblowers when they have the ability to act independently, without influence from state or federal governments.
The Daily Press' Nov. 14 Saturday Forum on Facebook asked readers' thoughts on the separation of church and state.
Because of the First Amendment, Michael Cummings thinks the separation was intended to keep the state out of the churches' business, not the other way around.
"Also enshrined in the First Amendment is the right of expression, assembly, free press, and redress of grievances against the government. If you limit what can be said from 'the pulpit,' you violate that church's right to free speech and, depending on context, the right to redress," he commented. "If you remove the tax-exempt status from a church for exercising its First Amendment rights, then you must remove the tax-exempt status from every nonprofit that expresses a political view."
Sherri Houston believes many of the country's laws are based on the Ten Commandments: "The two will never be totally separated. I think we Americans have taken our freedom for granted and become lax. I look at countries where Christianity is not allowed and am in awe at the strength of faith in those Christians who continue to meet while facing extreme persecution."
Daily Press columnist and history teacher Brent Been said that the biggest misconception many Americans have is that this is a "Christian" nation. He said the U.S. is a secular nation with First Amendment protections that prohibit the national government from establishing any official religion of the country.
"The churches should not attempt to persuade its congregation to align themselves politically on any issue. If churches are engaging in this behavior, they can pony up tax money. And no teachers should not be forced to lead prayer, and if Christian classes are included in the curriculum, other faiths should be incorporated into the curriculum, as well," said Been. "In the final analysis, when it comes to legislating, the true separation of church and state can only truly manifest itself by keeping a doctrinal system of beliefs out of the lawmaking process for we are, ultimately, a secular nation."
What you said
To mark Church/State Separation Week, Daily Press conducted an online poll asking whether readers supported the concept of separation of church and state. Readers responded overwhelmingly in support, with 80.6 percent saying "strongly support"; 75 percent saying "somewhat support"; 1.5 percent saying "somewhat unsupportive"; and 10.4 percent saying "strongly unsupportive."