Presidents Day is a good time to reflect on some of the great things chief executives have said about separation of church and state and religious freedom.

George Washington’s stirring affirmation of religious liberty in his letter to Touro Synagogue is an excellent place to start. From there, go to Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptists that invokes the “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor. You might also dip into the writings of James Madison, a primary author of the First Amendment and the Father of the Constitution.

But it’s important not to overlook a president from more recent history whose support for separation of church and state is sometimes not as well known: John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy: Strict on separation

When it comes to separation of church and state, Kennedy is best known for a speech he delivered before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston on Sept. 12, 1960. At the time, Kennedy was facing some skepticism that, as a Catholic, he’d be able to put the interests of the country above the political goals of his church.

Kennedy laid those fears to rest in the speech, asserting, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

He added, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.” (The entire speech, which runs less than 11 minutes, is on YouTube.)

That address, as powerful as it is, is just part of the story. Kennedy didn’t just deliver the talk and forget its words. Once in office, he put the speech’s promises into action.

On June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court handed down its first school prayer ruling, Engel v. Vitale. The widely misunderstood decision sparked a torrent of criticism. Many politicians and religious leaders condemned it, and there were calls for a constitutional amendment to restore official school prayer.

Asked about the decision at a press conference, Kennedy not only refrained from criticizing the court, he made it clear that he supported the ruling.

“We have in this case a very easy remedy and that is to pray ourselves. …We can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of all children,” Kennedy asserted. “That power is very much open to us.”

Kennedy also opposed tax aid to religious schools. Shortly after taking office, he put forth an education-related legislative package that focused on public schools, especially those that served low-income areas. Kennedy called for federal subsidies to raise teacher salaries, expand libraries and offer more services to disabled children – but only for public institutions.

The Catholic hierarchy was furious, but Kennedy stuck to the plan. His proposals, he said, were “in accordance with the clear prohibition of the Constitution.” When some church leaders complained that they could not support their parochial schools, Kennedy reminded them that immigrant families, often of modest means, had kept those schools going for years.

But Kennedy didn’t stop there. He instructed the Justice Department to prepare a legal analysis on the question of tax aid to religious schools. The document strongly warned against any diversion of public funds to sectarian institutions.

Leaders of Americans United at the time were impressed. C. Stanley Lowell, who edited Church & State then, told Look magazine, “We are extremely well pleased with President Kennedy, whose strong stand will reassure and inspire all who believe in the separation of church and state.”

Glenn Archer, the first executive director of Americans United, was also a fan of the young president. In his 1982 memoir The Dream Lives On, Archer called Kennedy’s record on church-state separation “an outstanding one.”  

Like all political leaders, Kennedy didn't always live up to his promises in some areas. But his record on church-state issues was unblemished, and his tragic assassination robbed our nation of the most enlightened leader on separation of church and state since the days of Jefferson and Madison.