The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..”
Article VI specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
On January 1, 1802 a letter by Thomas Jefferson, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, was published in a Massachusetts newspaper. In it he explained his point of view, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” This has been reaffirmed through later Supreme Court rulings.
Why this was so important to the founders were because of their European heritage. They saw the historical ties between the Crown and Church authority, both anciently, from the Holy Roman Church, and the later splinter organizations, The Church of England, so established because Henry the 8th couldn’t divorce and remarry under Pontiff decree, and the reformation beginning under Martin Luther whereby Germany adopted Lutheranism as the state religion. Thus their idea was simple and effective, the government wouldn’t establish and tie itself to a specific religion but on the same balance, no laws or restrictions would be placed on its practice by individuals.
For over 50 years there has often been debate over the right of influence by Christian voters on legislators as to abortion law as well as other matters pertaining to contraception. This isn’t a separation of church and state battle as many pro-choice people want to use to buttress their arguments. Going back to the original quotation of separation doesn’t in any way make it a problem for people of religious or non-religious background to engage with politics and government. The Constitution doesn’t prohibit or make religious people second class citizens to non-religious constituents. In point of fact almost all fundamental law concerning the protection of property, life and personal belief can be traced back to religious / spiritual influence. You can make arguments against, but that would have to negate reality.
Here’s the other side of the coin which some people have a great deal of difficulty in understanding or accepting. The state can make no law which prohibits the free exercise of religious practice. So where does that begin? It begins when laws are made that force people to alter their practice of established religion such that they must pay or permit things which they find reprehensible. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with that specific practice or principle, it just means the religion or established franchise has a right to pursue their beliefs unhampered by government. Again people like to nibble around the edges on this one, just like they now seem to want to nibble on the edges of freedom of speech, meaning if you don’t say things the government or some auxiliary influential organization approves, then you can’t say it. The other is, no individual has a right to defend themselves and or their property, it’s the government’s job to perform. This among many other centuries long practiced principles are actively debated.
These arguments are being put forth at a time when our access to information is even greater and so should our understanding of the law. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and many people are willing to accept a modern and more restrictive interpretation to suit their convenience. What many people seem to forget is this simple difference between what is America and what isn’t; it’s the ideas that formed this nation written in the Constitution. It isn’t our geography or even our collection of people. It’s because for several generations we have been fortunate to be protected and guided by foundational documents that respected human rights, divided the powers to prevent monarchy, oligarchy or tyranny, permitted freedom of expression, curtailed government power, and established basic order.
If the original ideas behind it were followed from day one, we wouldn’t have had slavery and there wouldn’t have been a civil war. It took fighting and years of refined understanding to conclude the basic premise, all people are created equal. Now the one thing it didn’t establish, all ideas are not equal. Some ideas are better than others. This is where we have debate and freedom to work these things out. Let us hope there’s still enough prevailing wisdom to avoid significantly altering the Constitution and it’s principles based on some modern and feckless interpretation.