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Separation of Church and State 101


What is the separation of church and state? What does it mean for religion, religious organizations and the government? Does it really mean anything for people personally, or is it only a function of large groups? What does it mean to be a separationist, accommodationist, or non-preferentialist?

What is Separation of Church and State?

The separation of church and state is perhaps one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented and maligned concepts in today's political, legal and religious debates. What just about everyone does agree upon, however, is that it is one of the most important liberties guaranteed American citizens.

Church and State: Who's Who?

Very often the debate about the separation of church and state proceeds as if there were only two sides - those who favor it and those who oppose it. In actuality the debate involves quite a bit more nuance than this. The idea of supporters and opponents is a simplification which is often sufficient, but a proper understanding of the separation of church and state requires some familiarization with the variety of positions actual people take.

Church, State, and the Public Square

One common complaint raised about the way strict separationists read the First Amendment is that it leaves the public square "naked," by which it is meant that the public square is now "bare" of religious speech. This, in turn, is believed to foster and encourage public hostility towards religion, something which is actually forbidden by the First Amendment. Does this end up demeaning religion and discriminate against religious believers?

James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance

There is a lot of disagreement and debate in America over the meaning and value of the separation of church and state. Some hold it to be inviolate while others deny that it does or should exist. In the arguments over Jefferson's metaphor of a "wall of separation," however, the concerns of James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment, tend to be lost. His Memorial and Remonstrance is a clear explanation of Madison's thoughts on religious freedom and the meaning of the First Amendment. He makes it clear that an 'establishment of religion' means much more than simply creating a national church or denomination.

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