Equality without exception

The Separation of Church and State

A fundamental principle promised by our Constitution

At its core, the separation of church and state is about equality. It ensures that all people—whether they are religious or not—are treated the same. That means everyone has the promise of equal access to hospitals and medical care, public schools, and government services—full civil rights regardless of their religious beliefs.  The separation of church and state gives all of us the freedom to live as ourselves and believe as we choose. As colonial-era  Baptist preacher John Leland so aptly put it in 1791 true religious freedom allows “every person speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods;” and the government will protect us in doing so.

The separation of church and state is a fundamental principle promised in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution, despite what white Christian Nationalists might say, is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution only refers to religion twice: in the First Amendment, which bars laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ and in Article VI, which prohibits ‘religious tests’ for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as officially Christian.” 

Why did America’s Founders insist on separating religion and government?

Before The Constitution was written, combinations of religion and government were common throughout much of human history. Some countries had official churches while extending religious tolerance, but that’s not separation of church and state. Until America’s founders crafted the First Amendment, no nation had dared to put an official distance between religion and government. 

Our Constitution guarantees a secular government; it does this in part to protect religious freedom for all. That’s why religious leaders have backed church-state separation from the earliest days of the American colonies to the folks who founded AU, to the clergy on AU’s Faith Advisory Council today. True religious freedom needs this separation.

Issues protected by church-state separation

What You Should Know

A revolutionary constitution

Our Constitution was the first to declare that power comes from people, not gods. The Constitution was the first not to mention a god or deity. Obviously, that was a deliberate choice. And, our Constitution was the first to ban religious tests for public office.

Not a Christian Nation

The U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice: in the First Amendment, which bars laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ and in Article VI, which prohibits ‘religious tests’ for public office.

The Founders' Religious Beliefs

The founders were diverse in their personal beliefs. Some were Christians, some were Unitarians, some were Deists and others are hard to categorize. But despite what their personal beliefs might have been, key founders agreed that separation of church and state was the best policy for our new nation.

75 Years Protecting Church-State Separation

  • 1950s: AU Fights For Birth Control Access

    In the 1950s and ‘60s, Americans United fought for the right of Americans to make decisions about reproduction and family planning without religious interference. AU highlighted oppressive laws in some states that banned birth control and rallied opposition.

  • 1960s: AU Sets The Record Straight On School Prayer

    In 1962 and ‘63, the Supreme Court issued landmark rulings making it clear that public schools could not pressure or compel students to take part in religious worship by sponsoring prayer and Bible readings.

    These decisions were widely misunderstood, and AU acted quickly to correct the record. AU pointed out that truly voluntary prayer and Bible reading was still legal in schools and that only coercive practices were banned. Sixty years later, AU is still responding to Religious Right misinformation about these rulings.

  • public school 1960s and '70s: AU Defends Public Education

    When sectarian pressure groups, private school advocates and anti-government extremists joined forces to divert taxpayer funding away from public schools and toward private and religious institutions, Americans United was quick to respond. AU’s charter listed defense of public schools, which welcome children of all faith and non-faith backgrounds, as a primary goal.

  • Jerry Falwell Sr. and then-President Ronald Reagan at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in 1984. 1980s: AU Debunks The Lies Of The Religious Right

    The rise of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and other “pro-family” groups presented a new challenge to Americans United. These organizations relentlessly attacked church-state separation, labeling it “unconstitutional” and even “un-American.”

    Americans United immediately leaped to the defense of the church-state wall and corrected the record. In Congress, in state legislatures, in courts of law and in the court of public opinion, AU met the Religious Right and demolished its facetious arguments, reminding all Americans that separation of church and state is uniquely American, a concept crafted by our Founders of which we can be proud.

  • 1990s: AU Blocks Religious Extremists’ Attempt To Rewrite First Amendment

    Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his extremists allies in the Religious Right attempted to add a so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment” to the Constitution in 1994. The amendment had nothing to do with religious freedom — it would have compelled students to pray in public schools, forced Americans to pay taxes to support religious groups and allowed government to endorse the signs, symbols and words of the majority faith.

    AU and its allies swung into action. Thanks for our campaign to educate the public, opposition to the amendment mounted, and it failed to pass the House.

  • 2000s: Americans United Fights The ‘Faith-Based’ Initiative

    The presidency of George W. Bush ushered in a new threat — the so-called “faith-based” initiative. Bush proposed funnelling millions to religious groups to provide social services — without adequate safeguards to protect those in need.

    AU was an early critic of the proposal, and we worked throughout the decade to ensure that faith-based programs did not become a license to discriminate — a position we still take today. The Obama administration added protections to the program in an attempt to ensure that faith-based organizations did not use government money to discriminate, exclude or proselytize.

  • 2010s: Americans United Battles For Marriage Equality And LGBTQ Rights

    As state and federal courts began recognizing marriage equality, aggressive Christian nationalist groups stepped up their efforts to base marriage law on theology by limiting marriage to one man and one woman. AU pushed back, insisting that marriage equality opponents articulate a secular rationale for their views, which they were unable to do.

    When some local courts resisted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that had the effect of legalizing marriage equality nationwide, AU went to court and won important victories on behalf of same-sex couples.

  • 2016-2020: Americans United Fights The Trump Administration’s Attacks On Religious Freedom

    Donald Trump, swept into office with strong support from Christian Nationalists, represented the most serious threat to church-state separation in the modern era. To appease his base, Trump issued a series of executive orders and policy changes that allowed for religion-based discrimination in a host of federal programs.

    Americans United met Trump in court, winning important victories. AU also exposed the troubling connections between Trump and religious extremists and educated Americans about the threat Trump and his allies posed to our rights.

Help us protect the separation of church and state

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Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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