Wall of Separation

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"Jefferson's Wall"

Because the government may not engage in the promotion or endorsement of any particular belief system, it is required by law that all of the varying forms of belief and nonbelief expressed by the people be honored and respected. What the First Amendment created was, in the words of Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, "a wall of separation between church and state."

The protections of freedom guaranteed by this wall of separation include the individual rights to free choice and to privacy of choice. That is to say, not only is the indiv

idual free to make a personal choice regarding belief or disbelief in any or all religions, but the person cannot be required to disclose that choice or have that choice used against him or her as a basis for discrimination. In the United States of America, we are all equal under the law of the land, no matter in what we choose to believe or disbelieve. This concept was reinforced in Justice Hugo Blackís decision in the Everson v. Board of Education (1947) case:

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 that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to 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 non-attendance. 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."

The "wall" that was erected pertains not only to the establishment of a religion, but also to the establishment of religious codes of morality through the passage of civil laws. Consider this example: a certain religion puts forth as doctrine that "divorce is acceptable only on the grounds of adultery and for no other reasons." Any married couple committed to that religion would not seek a divorce unless adultery was involved. To divorce for some other excuse (religiously proscribed) would be immoral, because the church had forbidden such an action.

Now suppose that a given community or state is comprised mostly of members of this same religion. Should the law be such that all married couples must stay married unless there has been adultery? If religion and government were one, no other type of divorce would be permissible. But, with separation of state and church, a "religious edict" defining permissible divorce is not the "rule of law." Even though the majority of individuals in the district may belong to the religion, the church cannot "proclaim by decree" the publicís divorce law. That is, civil codes cannot be limited to or by that which a particular religion accepts as right and proper.

Civic morality must be secular morality; it must be derived from the needs of all, rather than from any specific set of religious doctrine, dogma, or law. Therefore legal divorce becomes possible on various grounds ranging from "no-fault to incompatibility to infidelity." Of course, any given religious organization may have its own grounds for acknowledging the legal divorce. But, that policy remains within the faith system and has no legitimacy in civil law or necessary significance for the populace at large affected by the law.

Even though individual church members may as voters collectively have a strong voice and influence generally, the strength of the U.S. Constitutionís First Amendment is that members of religious minorities are not to lose their civil rights to a religious majority, even a powerful one. Certain individual rights (in this case, freedom to divorce) cannot be taken away from persons, no matter how small a contingent of the citizenry they may be.

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Last Updated 5/15/2005

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