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Myths & Misunderstandings About the Separation of Church and State

When discussing the separation of church and state, it becomes clear that there is a lot of misinformation, misunderstandings, and myths floating around. It simply isn't possible to have a reasonable understanding about the nature of how religion and government should interact when people do not have all of the facts - or, even worse, when what they think are facts turn out to simply be errors.
  1. America: Christian Nation? (9)
  2. Hostility to Religion (8)

Myths About the Separation of Church & State
When discussing the separation of church and state, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a lot of misinformation, misunderstandings, and myths floating around which distort people's perception of critical issues. It simply isn't possible to come to a reasonable understanding about the nature of how religion and government should interact...

Myths about American Law & Government
In order to argue against the legitimacy of separating church and state in America, many accommodationists make a variety of false claims about the nature of America's laws and government. The goal seems to be to argue that law and government in America should be blended with religion, preferably Christianity, otherwise their nature or...

Are Official Government Chaplains Constitutional?
Public funding of chaplains in the military, Congress, and other areas like prisons and the police creates a challenge for church/state separation. The existence of government chaplains doesn't prove that church and state are not or should not be separated, especially if these government chaplains should not exist. Opponents of church/state...

National Day of Prayer - Can the Government Encourage Prayer?
Every year we have state-sanctioned, state-encouraged praying in the form of a 'National Day of Prayer' (NDP). This official recognition of prayer was crated in 1952, around the time that 'under God' was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and 'In God We Trust' was adopted as the National Motto. The purpose of all three was to establish this...

Separation is Unbiblical - Is Church/State Separation Contrary to the Bible?
Most arguments against church/state separation are secular - philosophical, political, historical, etc. Sometimes, though, opponents of church/state separation use theological and religious arguments. The purposing of making such an argument appears to be to convince people to reject the notion of separation on religious grounds - if it is not biblical, then it is not Christian, and if it is not Christian, then it is not something which a Christian should accept.

Separation is Anti-Religion - Is Church/State Separation Anti-Religion?
One tactic against church/state separation is to portray separation as anti-religious. Because the American government cannot be hostile towards religion, it is argued that church/state separation is an illegitimate infringement on citizens' religious liberties. Their 'solution' to what is really a non-existent problem is to mingle religion with...

Communist Church/State Separation - Is Church/State Separation a Communist Plot
Arguing that the concept of a 'separation of church and state' is an attempt by communists to control the United States used to be more common during the Cold War, but it still gets trotted out occasionally by opponents to church/state separation. As with other things labeled 'communist,' this is more an attempt to discredit through association...

First Amendment Federalism - Does First Amendment Apply to State Governments?
Many opponents of church/state separation try to defend actions by state and local governments that promote or endorse religion by arguing that the First Amendment doesn't apply to them. These accommodations and theocrats insist that the First Amendment only applies to the Federal Government and therefore all other levels of government are...

Thanksgiving Proclamations - Are Religious Proclamations of Thanksgiving Right?
Presidents have, at various times, called upon the nation to observe days of thanksgiving, fasting and/or prayer, but is this an indication that they did not believe in church/state separation? Or is it an indication that imperfect humans have thus far failed to completely implement such separation? Opponents to church/state separation, when they point out the existence of such proclamations, imply that the former interpretation is necessarily true. There are many flaws to this argument.

Northwest Ordinance vs Separation - Northwest Ordinance Teaching Christianity
Opponents of church/state separation cite the Northwest Ordinance to prove that the authors of the Constitution didn't believe in strict separation of church and state. Enacted in 1787 under the Articles of Confederation then again in 1789 under the Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance established a governing structure for the Northwest...

Jefferson & the Danbury Baptists - Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists
One tactic used by opponents of church/state separation is to discredit the origin of the phrase 'wall of separation,' as if that would be very relevant to the importance and value of the principle itself. Roger Williams was probably the first to articulate this principle in America, but the idea is forever associated with Thomas Jefferson because of his use of the phrase 'wall of separation' in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Just how important was that letter, anyway?

America, a Christian Nation - Supreme Court Ruled America is a Christian Nation
There are many Christians who sincerely and even vociferously believe that America is a Christian Nation. One argument they offer on behalf of this is that the Supreme Court has official declared America to be a Christian Nation. Presumably if America is officially a Christian Nation, then the government would have the authority to privilege,...

Secular Humanism & Religion - Is Secular Humanism a Religion?
Apologists for theocracy sometimes argue that not only is Secular Humanism a religion, but in fact that the Supreme Court has officially ruled that Secular Humanism is a religion. They then proceed to argue that Secular Humanism is taught in public schools in violation of church/state separation. Since they don't believe that church and state...

Religion & Good Government - Is Religion Needed for Good Government?
Many opponents of church/state separation offer an argument which also seems to be a motivation behind their efforts to blend church and state: good government isn't possible without religion and religious values, so the introduction of religion into government is necessary. Few stop at just religion in general and argue Christian principles...

One Way Separation - Does Church/State Separation Only Go One Way?
One popular tactic of opponents of church/state separation is to pretend to accept that separation exists, but then to ague that separation church and state only works one way: the state is prevented from interfering with churches or religious belief but churches are not prevented from interfering with the government. When stated so clearly it...

Prayer & School Performance - Did School Performance Decline Without Prayer?
Many opponents of church/state separation allege that any growth in social ills like crime, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy are all due to the removal of government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading from public schools. If only these government-sponsored religious activities had been kept, so the argument goes, society would be better off....

Sundays Excepted Clause - Christian Sabbath & the Sundays Excepted Clause
Article I, section 7 of the Constitution is the 'Sundays Excepted Clause' and is sometimes used by opponents of church/state separation to argue that the Constitution was designed to reinforce Christianity. The Sundays Excepted Clause states: 'If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall...

School Prayers - Are Prayers Allowed in School?
That's right, students should be allowed to pray in school - and they are! Some people act and argue as though students were not permitted to pray in school, but there is no truth to this. At best, they are confusing the difference between official, state-sponsored, state-mandated prayers led by school officials and personal, private prayers...

Constitution & Jesus - Jesus is Not in the Constitution
Accommodationists and others opposed to the separation of church and state sometimes argue that government support and defense of Christianity is justified because the American Constitution refers to Christianity: in Article VII, the Constitution is dated with the words the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven. What...

School Prayer & Bible Reading - How Common were Prayer & Bible Reading?
In their defense of state-sponsored Bible readings and state-written prayers, opponents of church/state separation sometimes argue that Supreme Court decisions which struck down those activities struck down old, popular traditions. There is a common assumption that the older some practice is, the more it should be exempt from standard...

God in Public School - Was God Expelled from Public Schools?
Many opponents to church/state separation try to claim that God was 'kicked out of schools' back in the 1960s - that God was somehow a part of the standard school day in the 1950s and earlier, but in the evil 1960s God was removed. Since then, it is further alleged, every social ill has gotten worse and the reason for that can be found precisely...

Christianity vs. The Constitution - Christian Principles in the Constitution?
Opponents of church/state separation sometimes claim that the Constitution embodies or reflects fundamental Christian morals and principles. Their point seems to be that we should regard the Constitution as a Christian document, not as a secular document. Since the Constitution is the foundation of the American government, the implication is...

Myths About Church / State Separation & Hostility To Religion, Religious Belief
Some of the most popular myths about church / state separation and efforts to keep civil government secular are based on the belief that this is all evidence of hostility to religion. According to many Christian Nationalists, people want to separate church & state because they hate religion or Christianity and any state that is neutral in...

There was prayer and Bible reading in all schools before 1962
This is simply not true, and that may be why we don't hear this claim too often. At the time of the Engel and Schempp decisions, prayers and Bible readings were still common in Northeastern and Southern states, but some Western and Midwestern states had already begun to force an end to them.

Students should be allowed to pray in school
That's right, students should be allowed to pray in school - and they are! Some people act and argue as though students were not permitted to pray in school, but there is no truth to this. At best, they are confusing the difference between official, state-sponsored, state-mandated prayers led by school officials and personal, private prayers initiated and said by the student.

God was expelled from the public schools in 1962
According to this myth, God was kicked out of schools back in the 1960s - since then, every social ill has gotten worse and the reason for that can be found precisely at the moment when God was expelled. Unfortunately, it's false.

After prayer was removed from schools, performance declined...
The purpose of this argument it to try and claim that various social ills like crime, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy are all due to the fact that prayer and Bible reading have been removed. If only they had been kept, so the argument goes, then society would be much better off today.

Every year we have a "National Day of Prayer," so we are religious...
Every year sees the arrival of, once again, state-sanctioned and state-encouraged praying in the form of a "National Day of Prayer" (NDP). This official recognition of prayer was first established back in 1952, around the time that "under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" was adopted as the National Motto.

Government chaplains prove that there is no church/state separation
It is true that public money pays for chaplains in the Congress and in our military. However, does this demonstrate that the principle of church / state separation is invalid, or does it instead prove that this principle has not yet been achieved? Opponents to separation act as if the former implication is obviously correct, but they do not make a good case...

Our national motto is "In God We Trust," so we are a Christian Nation
It is true that the phrase "In God We Trust" appears on American money and also serves as the National Motto. Is this an indication that the principle of separation is invalid and that the United State is a religious or even a Christian nation? Or is it, rather, an indication that imperfect humans have thus far failed to completely implement such separation?

Presidents have given proclamations calling on days of thanksgiving...
It is true that presidents have, at various times, called upon the nation to observe days of thanksgiving, fasting and/or prayer. Is this an indication that these men did not believe in the separation of church and state and that the principle of separation is invalid? Or is it, rather, an indication that imperfect humans have thus far failed to completely implement such separation?

The Northwest Ordinance provides for the support of Christianity
Sometimes, in an effort to find early American documents which support the idea that the authors of the Constitution did not really mean to separate church and state, accommodationists will point to the Northwest Ordinance. According to this myth, the Northwest Ordinance provided for the public funding of religion...

The Supreme Court has declared that Secular Humanism is a religion
Along with the above claim it is sometimes also argued that Secular Humanism has become an "established" religion in our public schools. Secular Humanism has, like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, become one of the Religious Right's favorite boogeymen: all manner of social evils are attributed to them as if it were hoped that, by eliminating them, society would achieve perfection.

This "separation of church and state" is anti-religion
This argument is a common strategy among those who want to appear to support the right to the freedom of religion. They correctly point out that the government cannot be hostile to religion, but by twisting things around they make it seem as though attempts by the government to remain detached from religious issues is a form of hostility.

The "separation of church and state" is unbiblical
. Response: Sometimes, a person might try to argue that there is no Christian basis for believing that church and state should be separated. The purposing of making such an argument appears to be to convince people to reject the notion of separation on religious grounds - if it is not biblical, then it is not Christian...

This "separation of church and state" is a communist plot
Arguing that the concept of a "separation of church and state" is an attempt by communists to control the United States used to be more common during the Cold War, but it still gets trotted out occasionally. Addressing it helps because doing so explains just where the concept did come from and why it really is important to American history.

The 1st Amendment only prohibits state interference with chruches
This myth argues that there is a "wall of separation" between church and state, but that this wall only works "one way." It prevents the state from interfering with churches and telling them what they may or may not teach, but it does not prevent churches or other religious organizations from using the state to enforce their particular religious dogmas and beliefs.

The First Amendment only applies to the Federal Government
This is a particularly sad misunderstanding, because it relies upon an ignorance - deliberate or accidental - of large portions of our legal and political history. It is true that, when it was originally ratified, the First Amendment only restricted the actions of the Federal Government. State governments were free to ignore it - and many did...

Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists is not important
Although the idea of a "wall of separation" originated with Roger Williams and not Thomas Jefferson, it is Jefferson's phrasing which has been most used by judges, lawyers and politicians when it comes to interpreting the First Amendment. This is unsurprising because of Jefferson's role in the development of our nation and our political system.

The Constitution and the Sundays Excepted Claus
Another common point of contention in the debate over whether or not the Constitution is reflects particularly Christian concerns and exists to reinforce Christian principles is the meaning of Article I, section 7 of the Constitution.

The Constitution refers to Christianity and Jesus
One common argument in favor of the separation of church and state is that the Constitution, which is the founding legal document of this nation, makes no reference to religion except in terms which would exclude it from government authority, and certainly makes no reference to Christianity.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair and School Prayer Myth: Did an Atheist Get Bibles &...
An outspoken atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair has long been an object of hatred and fear for the Religious Right. It is thus not surprising that they placed the blame on her alone for the elimination of state-sponsored prayers and Bible readings in public schools. O'Hair herself certainly didn't do anything to disabuse people of that notion, and...

Declaration of Independence & Christianity Myth: Does the Declaration of...
Many argue that the Declaration of Independence endorses the idea that the United States was founded upon religious, if not Christian, principles, and therefore church and state must remain intertwined in order for this nation to continue properly. They are wrong.

Freedom From Religion vs. Freedom of Religion Myth: You Have Freedom Of, not...
This claim is common, but it rests on a misunderstanding of what real freedom of religion entails. The most important thing to remember is that freedom of religion, if it is going to apply to everyone, also requires freedom from religion. Why is that? You do not truly have the freedom to practice your religious beliefs if you are also required...

Establishment of a National Church: Does the First Amendment Only Prohibit a...
This myth relies on one of two misunderstandings. The first is that the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty is only about preventing the government from setting up some particular church to which all must belong. The second is that the First Amendment does not prohibit 'multiple establishments' - showing equal preference for many...

Church / State Separation: Myths and Misconceptions
When discussing the separation of church and state, it becomes clear that there is a lot of misinformation, misunderstandings, and myths floating around. It simply isn't possible to have a reasonable understanding about the nature of how religion and government should interact when people do not have all of the facts - or, even worse, when what they think are facts turn out to simply be errors.

Separation of Church and State: Is it in the Constitution?
The phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear in the Constitution, but the absence of this phrase does not mean that it is an invalid concept or that it cannot be used as a legal or judicial principle.

Pledge of Allegiance & God: Linking Patriotism with Piety
Because of the words "under God," many regard the Pledge of Allegiance not simply as an expression of patriotism, but also as an expression of religious piety. Furthermore, it has been used by many as evidence that this is a religious nation; not simply in the sense that most people are religious, but rather than the government itself is founded...

More Myths and Misconceptions
Here are myths and errors which come up from time to time - some more often than others, but all relevant and worth understanding. If you come across any misunderstandings about the separation of church and state and the relationship between government and religion which you think merit inclusion here, be sure to let me know.

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