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The Establishment Clause And Its Effect On

The Role Of Religion In American Society Essay, Research Paper The United States is a nation that has been built on a foundation of religious freedom. Since the seventeenth century, people have come to the North American continent to

The Role Of Religion In American Society Essay, Research Paper

The United States is a nation that has been built on a foundation of religious freedom.

Since the seventeenth century, people have come to the North American continent to

enjoy the toleration of faiths. But although there is a decidedly religious element to

American society, the First Amendment, (specifically the Establishment Clause) has

created a strict delineation of church and state in order to protect the right of freedom of

religion.

Although the tenet ?separation of church and state,? has long been in the American

vernacular, it was not until 1947 that this was truly interpreted into the Constitution. In

the Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, the court came to the

decision that the Establishment Clause was intended to keep the government from setting

up a state church, and thus promoting one religion over another.1

Why did the Framers of the Constitution advocate this division between secular

and spiritual life in the United States? Perhaps they sought to avoid the turbulent history

of religious persecution so prevalent in Europe. Many of the early immigrants to the New

World came to escape the forced attendance of state churches. However, with the

settlement of America, these practices were transplanted to the new colonies, and quickly

took root.

The Puritans, who, in the words of Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop,

intended to create a ?city upon a hill,? to be an example to others of how to conduct their

society, were as closed-minded as the government they had eschewed.2 Religious dissent

was not tolerated, as in the cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Williams? call

for a separation of church and state angered Puritan leaders and led to his expulsion from

Massachusetts.3 When he established Rhode Island in 1644, his policies of religious

toleration were dictated by a wish to avoid ?the bloody doctrine of persecution.?4

Hutchinson?s theories of antinomianism and her claims of communion with God were

contrary to those of the Massachusetts government, and she, too, found herself banished

in 1637.5

The considerable influence of the Anglican Church on affairs in Virginia created a

situation in which those who were opposed to the church were still forced to support it

through a tax levy created by the Virginia General Assembly.6As early as 1779, Jefferson

had presented a law that would create a situation of religious tolerance in Virginia, and

end the unfair religious tithe tax. However, it was not until James Madison threw his

support behind the cause that Jefferson?s ?Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in

Virginia? was passed, despite considerable resistance from the Anglican Church.7

Madison, in his Memorial and Remonstrance, asserted that

?The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and

conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as

these may dictate.?8

Jefferson?s ?Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia,? has stood as a

precedent for the place of religion in the United States for over two hundred years. It

reflected his belief that, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, all people were

entitled to ?certain unalienable rights,? and freedom to follow their own system of beliefs

and worship as they wish.9

These ideas of religious tolerance have been passed down into the present. The

First Amendment, created with Jefferson?s precedent in mind, declares that

?Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or

prohibiting the free exercise thereof.?10

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is the key to the separation of

church and state. Its decree that the government is forbidden to create a state church, pass

laws to advance one religion over any other, make attendance at one church compulsory,

to tax in support of a church, or meddle in religious affairs has forced a reinterpretation of

many facets of American public life that have become accepted traditions. It has been used

to ban religious instruction in public schools (McCollum v. Board of Education), school

prayer (Engel v. Vitale, Abington v. Schempp, Wallace v. Jaffree), the prohibition of

teaching evolutionary theory (Epperson v. Arkansas), state aid to parochial schools

(Lemon v. Kurtzman, Early v. Dicenso), the placement of the Ten Commandments in

classrooms (Stone v. Graham), the instruction of creationism (Edwards v. Aguillard), and,

most recently, prayer at school-sponsored events (Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v.

Jane Doe).

Many have argued that the interpretation of the Constitution that excludes the

government from advocating any and all religious practice has led to a lack of morality in

American public life. But it is the very advocacy of the Establishment Clause by the

Supreme Court that allows the citizens of the United States to practice religion freely and

openly. The precedent followed by the government today is one that has been in place

since the earliest days of European civilization on the American continent. The belief in the

separation of church and state is one that is of the utmost importance, because not only

does it protect the right of religious freedom in the United States, but it also prevents the

deprivation of other natural rights based on religion. In the words of Thomas Jefferson,

?Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”

Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing. 330 US 1. US Supreme Court, 1947.

Garraty, John. The American Nation. New York: Longman-Addison Wesley Longman,

1998.

Jefferson, Thomas. ?A Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom.? Old South Documents.

Sewanee University. 3 Feb. 2001. http://smith2sewanee.edu/gsmith courses

Religion391/ DocsOldSouth/1779-ThomasJefferson.html.

Madison, James. ?Memorial and Remonstrance.? James Madison Center, James Madison

University. 3 Feb. 2001. www.jmu.edu/madison/remon.html.

The American Experience. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Williams, Roger. ?The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience.? First

Amendment Cyber-Tribune. 2 Feb. 2001. www.trib.com/FACT/1st.jeffers/

williams.html.

US Constitution, Amendment I.

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