Religious liberty is one of the fundamental components of our society. The “separation of church and state” is what made the founding of America so revolutionary. But what is the “separation of church and state,” actually?  Many who came to America sought religious tolerance and the freedom to choose their religious denomination or basis of faith.

There’s no doubt that when our founding fathers talked about religion they held to a Judeo Christian biblical faith, assuming foundational natural rights granted by a Creator, though there were different views on the practice and substance of that faith. Nevertheless, the freedom to choose without government influence was key to forming the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause.

This faith was for the creation of a society that developed virtue and reason for the pursuit of happiness. While under God, everyone created in his image was free to pursue his or her purpose. This purpose, given by the Creator, gave meaning to life and benefitted society. It included the inherent necessity of relationship and societal virtue summed up by Jesus in the words “Love…God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

By the time of the framing of the Constitution there were many competing church denominations, and the only way to keep America from being torn apart by religious factions was to sever ties between State and church in order to have the freedom to choose your belief system and prevent the government from forcing a belief system upon you.

As a member of the Anglican Church, Thomas Jefferson saw huge problems when it was decided that it was a crime not to baptize infants into the church. The state church, the Anglican Church, had a say in taxation and government-controlled jobs based on citizens of the state being participants in the Anglican Church.  Jefferson led the successful revolution against the Anglican Church in its use of government to oppress dissenters.

It’s clear that forcing a particular faith on its citizens was what the founding fathers were concerned with and wanted to eliminate.

But what does faith look like in a secular society? The Federal court of Oregon determined that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.

It seems like a long way from what the founding fathers were trying to codify.

Nevertheless, with that being true we have a challenge culturally. We are no longer talking about differing denominational beliefs but about whether there is the idea of a Creator whom extends inalienable rights to citizens.

The First Amendment was ratified in 1791 and freedom of religion was established by the creation of 2 clauses:  

•?One, the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This prevented the government from creating a state church that forced people to participate and violate their personal convictions.

•?Two, the free exercise clause: “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This allowed you to practice any faith you wanted to.

How has this played out? In 1971, the Supreme Court case “Lemon vs. Kurtzman” developed a three-pronged criteria to ensure government policies don’t violate religious freedoms.

First, a policy cannot have a religious purpose.

Second, government cannot promote or favor any set of religious beliefs.

Third, the government cannot overly involve itself in religious influence. An example would be that teachers in public schools cannot lead a classroom in prayer because it would entail school promoting one religion above another. However, students can engage in extracurricular activities run by students during non-school hours.

In America, and, as Americans, I believe we can all agree the defense of an individual’s inalienable rights, which are not at the whims of a capricious and arbitrary state, has allowed us all to enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to its fullest, whether in a religious or secular context.