Brief Overview of the Relationship between Church and State

In the Bill of Rights, the first thing the founders discussed was religion. Specifically, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Thomas Jefferson once said, “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’”

But just how thick is this wall of separation? Are there times when the church and state can interact? We hope to provide some insight into these questions by debating these very points

Below you will read a debate between a separatist and an accommodationist. Separatists, in varying degrees, believe the church and state should be completely separate. Accommodationists, in varying degrees, believe the church and state may interact in some ways.

The Debate

We present you with a debate. Like an oral debate, each side is given a fair opportunity to put forth an argument, defend the position, and cross-examine the opponent’s argument. Both sides will be speaking directly to you, the audience, to persuade you that their argument is correct.

So, which argument is correct? You decide.

Separatist Opening Arguments

To the audience, good day. To the Accommodationists, best of luck.

We have before us, we have a debate about the establishment of religion. We believe that church and state should be completely separate entities and neither can support the other entity. To begin, we hope to lay our argument in this order. First, we will define the establishment of religion. Second, we will shape our argument. Third, we will provide evidence of when the court has upheld this argument.

Perhaps Justice Black defined the establishment of religion best when he delivered his opinion in Everson v. Board of Education. He said,

“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’”

In summary, the government has no room to do anything that may support the establishment of religion. Even if the state attempts to support all religions, it will fall short of the ideal of separation between church and state.

This definition applies to all religious institutions, not just places of worship. Aid to a religious school breaks the definition and puts holes in the wall of separation. This includes aid which may have a secular purpose. Thus, any aid to a religious institution is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

We have seen the courts abide by this definition when adjudicating cases about compulsory bible readings and public prayer in schools. In the School District of Abington Township v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett, the court ruled that compulsory bible reading and public prayer in schools was a violation of the establishment clause.

We should continue to abide by this rule. Aid or support of any kind from the state towards a religious establishment is a violation of the First Amendment.

Accommodationist Cross-Examination

To the audience, thank you for your participation in this debate. We encourage your comments on the arguments presented.

In their argument, the separatists point to a definition established in Everson v. Board of Education. However, they neglect to point out the outcome of the case. Surely, they are disappointed with the court’s response after giving such an all-encompassing definition.

Everson is a case about public aid being provided to transport students to school. This way, the financial burden on parents is lightened. However, this transport took students to both public and religious schools. Everson, a taxpayer, thought this violated the establishment clause. The courts disagreed. Because the aid was being used for something other than a religious purpose, the aid could go to a religious institution. In other words, the aid had a secular, not religious, purpose. They called this principle the “secular purpose rule”.

The separatists argue that any aid to a religious institution should be prohibited. They support this argument with evidence from several cases. However, the courts still used the rule and very few cases violate the rule. For instance, the court has ruled in favor of religious institutions several times including Everson, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, and Edwards v. Aguillard. I have listed only a few, but several more cases fell in favor of religious institutions.

Thus, the separatists have desires they wished to validate with reality. However, reality tells a completely different story. The courts are willing to accommodate religious institutions.

Accommodationist Opening Arguments

As accommodationists, we believe that being too strict on the establishment of religion infringes on the free exercise of religion. Thus, the definition provided by the separatists must be expanded. First, we hope to expand on the definition provided by the separatists. Next, we will use the expanded definition to shape our argument. Finally, we will provide evidence of when the courts applied our definition in legal cases.

We agree with the definition provided by the separatists but not their interpretation. They use the definition to mean any religious institution, we interpret it to mean any religious purpose. Let me explain.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the courts established a rule to determine if there is an establishment of religion. This rule is our expansion on the definition provided. There are three parts of the rule; if the case violates any part of the rule, there is an establishment of religion. The court must determine:

  • The law must be for a secular purpose.
  • The effect of the law neither advances nor inhibits religion
  • The law does not foster excessive government entanglement.

Several times, the courts have been accommodating to religion by using this rule. We mentioned several cases in our cross-examination. I wish to put forth an additional case now.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the town would invite a local clergy member from a list of local religions to offer a prayer before the council meetings. The purpose? Provide a sense of solemnity before the meeting began. Some members present took offense to the prayers and the case worked towards the Supreme Court.

The court ruled in favor of the town prayers because they did not violate any part of the Lemon rule. 

We realize that not every case will pass the Lemon test, but we believe the test is broad enough to protect religious free exercise while ensuring there is no establishment of religion.

At the time of the founding, our nation was much more concerned with the state being ruled by the church. This fear has dissipated with the growing strength of the state and the weakening of the church. Therefore, we can afford to be more accommodating by following the rule established in Lemon.

Separatist Cross-Examination

In their argument, the accommodationists base their position on the Lemon test. However, they are mistaken in believing the Lemon test is an accommodationist position. Instead, it is quite restrictive on religion.

The cases they cited as using the Lemon test often neglected to evaluate one or more parts of the requirement. For instance, had the courts evaluated excessive government entanglement, Town of Greece would fail the lemon test.

Further, in Lemon, the courts found that there was excessive entanglement between the religious institution and the state.

This is not a debate about whether the courts take an accommodative or separatist approach to the establishment clause. Instead, we are debating whether we should take a specific approach.

By addressing only the Lemon test in their argument, the accommodationists have not argued in favor of an approach for accommodation. Instead, they only shared how the courts currently respond to the question.

Accommodationist Rebuttal

The separatists accuse us of having no argument. On the contrary, we have argued in favor of accommodating religion but still remained within the Constitutional boundaries of the First Amendment.

We cannot argue for the full establishment of religion within states because we would have the same concerns the founders sought to prevent. Namely, the issues with a church-controlled government. However, the state may accommodate religion by allowing the free exercise of religion.

We recognized both sides in our argument. We put limitations on religious establishment so we can remain within Constitutional bounds. Additionally, we showed how free exercise can still occur within those limitations we placed. Thus, the state may accommodate religious institutions.

Separatist Rebuttal

In their cross-examination, the accommodationists listed cases where the courts have left holes in the separatist wall. However, the debate wasn’t about whether there are holes, but whether there should be holes. We continue to hold that there should not.

History is full of cases regarding the establishment clause. Some cases have been in favor of a separatist approach while others favor accommodationists. The cases that favor accommodationists say aid is fine if there is a secular purpose.

However, by providing any aid, even for a secular purpose, the religious institutions may use the aid to grow and enlarge. Thus, the government helps to establish a religion.

This process is in direct violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Accommodationist Closing Arguments

You have heard our arguments and you know our case. The government may not be allowed to sustain a religion, keep it alive, or force people to worship in certain ways, but the government can allow religion to function without impediment. We continue to argue that the Lemon test protects from the religious establishment but also allows religious freedom. The founders valued religion. Many believed the country would be successful because of divine intervention. Because of this, they protected religion. Therefore, the government may be accommodating to religious involvement.

Separatist Closing Arguments

Thank you for participating in this debate. I want to close with a summary of our argument. We defined what constituted religious establishment. By following that definition, it is clear that the government is to remain far away from religion. However, many times the government has become involved by providing aid to religious institutions for “secular purposes.” This aid is then used to support the stability of the religious institution. Therefore, government aid or support in any way is a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. As Jefferson put it, there is to be a wall that separates church and state. A wall does not have holes.

A Quick Note

We want to hear your opinions and arguments. Comment below to let us know what you think.

We don’t claim to have presented every argument. Some arguments are more extreme while others are less extreme. However, we feel we have encompassed the overarching beliefs from both points of view.

Further, we do not claim that any argument presented is the point of view of Two Man Congress.

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Will Laursen

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