How Not to Apply Separation of Church and State

Americans sometimes evince an erroneous understanding of an idea that is in the bedrock of U.S. government—the separation of church and state. One commonly sees this misunderstanding in letters to the editor and blog comments about such controversial topics as gay marriage, abortion, and end-of-life ethics, where a particular bishop or the Catholic bishops as a group have weighed in publicly. “What right do they have to limit my rights,” someone say in response, “Don’t they know about separation of church and state?”

America has published articles on this topic, seeking to clarify what separation of church and state means. At its simplest, the concept means that the state cannot under the U.S. Constitution establish any specific religion or favor one over another. But over and over in pubiic exchanges one sees and hears the misperception that it is somehow illegal or un-American for a church or church official to express an opinion in a democracy. This is perceived as “telling non-Catholics what to do” and is expressed as a violation of church and state.


Like any other individual or institution, the Catholic church and its officials, not only have a right to participate in this democracy, but ought to participate in it, according to the church’s own teaching on the government’s legitimate role in society and the responsibilities of citizenship. And like any other individuals and non-profit institutions, the church can even establish groups to promote its teachings and opinions, as long as these do not breach the laws regarding political partisanship. Even stepping over that boundary, however, would not involve separation of state, but rather the status of the church as a non-profit with non-taxable status—a different matter entirely.

Truth is, those persons whose ideas run contrary to the church’s on any of these controversial matters ought not to whine about the active, civic participation of their opponents. Their recourse is to use the same tools of democracy—voting, public airing of their side, organizing movements to convince others of their opinions—that the church is using. They can have or be their own spokespersons. The game is one of effectiveness. Persuasive communication, weighed by an intelligent and informed public (in the best of worlds), should rule the land. By contrast, democracy is hurt most, I think, by the lobbying that takes place behind closed doors, with enormous amounts of money being parlayed behind it.

All this, too, is widely understood, of course. Still, some cannot resist firing off a cheap shot at the church for expressing its views—many of which express a majority opinion, though the public is shifting on some topics.

At its best, democracy is a public square where all can speak, assemble with others and vote. Separation of church and state does not bar churches, synagogues or mosques from that square.

May the best views win.


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Vince Killoran
8 years 5 months ago
I suppose there are people out there that don't think churches ought to participate in the civic sphere. There's wrong of course; but this essay skirts the limits that churches should place on themselves in terms of specific pieces of legislation and support for individual politicians.  Is Karen Sue Smith arguing, for example, that the USCCB should endorse specific candidates running for office.  Why/not?

It seems that most of the whinning these days is from church leaders who balk at conditions under which they take public dollars.  If you want to discirmination please don't take tax payer dollars.
Mark Harden
8 years 5 months ago
Well stated, Ms. Smith, thank you. Another consideration is that attempts to clear religion from the public square are by no means simply establishing some imaginary neutral ground: secularism itself is an ideology with its own orthodoxy. We often see church/state separation extremists clearing public discourse of religious content in the interest of advancing their own.
8 years 5 months ago
Presidential candidate John Kerry once gave a typically long response to a question about his faith life impacting his public service by stressing in the same paragraph how he finds motivation, guidance and direction from his faith in determining his policies and policy preferences when it comes to helping the poor with wealth transfers.....but then claimed that the same faith could not possibly inform his voting or policy preferences when it came to abortion because to allow such ideas to influence his voting would be "imposing his religious views" on people.

In other words, the church is OK when it's going my way, but it's intolerably offensive when it's not. 

His answer was considered sophisticated, nuanced, and intellectually cogent by all his devoted Democratic voters, a plurality of whom were Catholic. That he contradicted himself in the same paragraph... either missed entirely or, which is more likely, accepted without cognitive dissonance because the principle is whatever will advance the party not whatever is logically consistent. 

Look at the bigger picture: if non-profit institutions shall not speak about political candidates at any time because they're not paying taxes.....why did it make sense in 'campaign finance reform' to ban political speech to tax paying institutions 60 days before an election when their speech would be most effective? If we are to put up with porn on the theory that freedom of expression and speech for offensive images and language guarantees (somehow) the freedom of expression and speech for politics.....why is it legally and culturally easier to accept soft and hard porn in every arena of life....but political speech is heavily regulated, controlled, contextualized, and pooh poohed by individuals or politically incorrect sectors? Wasn't it supposed to be even more safe and secure, not less?

Finally, apart from logical inconsistency, double standards, and fallacies passed off as obvious social truth.... has no one considered the obvious error in most 'church vs. state' crisises? The principle was about separating institutions from one another, not forbidding CITIZENS from their rights.... Only if you posit that the public equals the state and that therefore students at public schools are agents of the state towards one another could you construe an establishment of religion should a student offer a prayer in a public setting for her peers.

8 years 5 months ago
A couple comments:

The concept of separation of Church and State is a relatively new concept that flowed out of a Supreme Court decision in the 1940's that was based on keeping Catholics down.  So separation of church and state was originally an anti Catholic movement, It has morphed in to something entirely different now. 

Second, what a lot of Church leaders and theologians call social justice may in fact be just the opposite.  Implementing what some in the Church want may in fact actually create great harm.  As such, it is incumbent on Catholics to oppose the Church on these non religious doctrines which the Church espouses. 
Rick Fueyo
8 years 5 months ago
It is undeniable that the Church should have the full rights to participate in the political process and to articulate its position, and that the appropriate response is counterargument rather than attempt to silence based upon constitutional separation.

But there are two caveats to this observation:

1)  First, if the Church is a political actor, it is subject to the same rough-and-tumble but every other political actor received. There should not be an attempt to suggest that someone speaking from the Church perspective on political issues deserve some form of deference not granted to other political actors.  It is then perfectly permissible to attack motives, etc. To use an obvious example, the fact that the Church is a patriarchy is wielded against it in political argument. Many defenders of the Church's position think that is not a legitimate criticism. Perfectly so if the Church is only speaking morally, but if it endeavors in the political arena, such attacks are fair game.

2) Second, with respect to the issue of marriage, I  have great difficulty with the Church advocating its definition for society's position when it has a parallel institution. Put another way, the Church solemnizes marriages according to its own rules, appropriately so. Just because one is married within the Church does not necessarily mean one is married as recognized by the state, and vice versa. The Church does not recognize divorce, while the state does. I would utterly defend the Church's unending prerogative to continue to define according to its own conscience what it will recognize as marriage. 

But when it says that, notwithstanding that the Church defines marriage on its own, that the remainder society of should also follow at least some of the Church's prerogatives in defining marriage, that seems quite another matter to me.  State sanctioned marriage carries with it unique property rights recognized by the courts. Thus, that seems a relatively unique case where separation is appropriate in terms of public advocacy, because separation has already been recognized in terms of the constitution of the institution itself.
Tom Maher
8 years 5 months ago
This article is a very excellent reminder of the Constitutional basis of our religious liberty  that we all enjoy in America.  

The very first words of First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: " Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof; ...".

The origianl meaning of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"  was the government should not setup an official religion the way the Church of England was established by King Henry VIII.  Even today the offical head of the Church of England is the monarch currently Queen Elizabeth II.  Any other religion in the British Empire was not as favored and did not recieve tax dollars.  Catholics in particular were not generally allowed to vote or hold political office in the Bristish Empire until the mid 1820's.  So all non-Anglican religious groups including  Catholics were very much against the government esatblishing and running a religion the way the Church of England was.

But it is just as important to note the second clause: "... or prohibit the free expression thereof;...".  This clearly means that governemnt must not be involved with free expression of religion which is the First Amendment "freedom of religion" everyone talks about along with freedom os speech, press and right to assmble.

The author is so correct in saying that the First Amendment is the bedrock legal principle of U.S. government and American society. 

Unfortunately over the years and very much today groups want to re-intreprete the Constiution and use the establishment chase as a powerful weapon to limit the free expression of religion.  Politiically some people are anti-religous or secular with a passion. They want to limit religious expression that they do not favor often under the banner of ''social justice".  In other words a paticular social or politcal cause they favor is more important than the Constitution right of freedom of religion to all.  Paradoxically they want to use the establishment clause to limit the free expression of religion clause. 

Some for example go so far to say all churchs should to be be taxed.   Or military service members should not have chaplains provided by the goverment.  The Unitatrian Universalist (UU) under "Social Justice Statements" on the Separation of Church and State 1963 General Resolution which is still in effect upholds the exlcusive public funding monoply and control of  governement of "non-sectarian public education" across America even to the extent of limiting parental involvemnt ior influence n favor of the strict goverenment control of education.  Other political activist groupds want the church to lose it tax exemption if it speaks out on any issue as if the tax laws rather tahn the Consitutional was the supereme law of the land on  free speech and freedom of religion.

It is essentail for Catholics to recognize and vigorously defend the U.S. Constitution for the legal bedrock it is for assuring continued individual, social, political and religious freedom and justice in America. 
Mark Harden
8 years 5 months ago
What Tom Maher said.

Also, beware the verbal formulation trying to move the First Amendment from "freedom of religion" to "freedom of worship". The latter phrase is being used more and more and implies a limitation of religious profession to houses of worship only. "Say whatever you want in your silly Churches, but shut your mouth once you walk out the door." That's not at all what is meant by the separation of Church and State, no matter what recent Constitutional jurisprudence has held.
8 years 5 months ago
Wow; John Lyons should be a regular contributor to this blog!  That is the most cogent, accurate, and compelling statement of the case I have read in quite a while!  Bravo!
Crystal Watson
8 years 5 months ago
"At its best, democracy is a public square where all can speak, assemble with others and vote. Separation of church and state does not bar churches, synagogues or mosques from that square."

It's one thing for the church to give its opinion on a political issue, the way other entities can and do, but it isn't quite like other entities ..... aside from the tax exemptness, when the bishops give their opinions, they purport to have the weight of Truth behind theose opinions, and when politicians (and the laity) don't listen, the church threatens them with loss of communion.  The church wants to have it both ways.


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