Religion and politics. Perhaps the two most controversial conversation topics across all languages and cultures. Because most people associate major aspects of their personal identity with their religious and political beliefs, these subjects tend to cause great conflict when disagreed upon.
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As two of the most polarizing topics across the world, one might immediately assume that religion and politics should never mix. Nonetheless, these two social institutions bleed into one another far too often, even in countries that have established a formal separation of church and state, like the US.
So, what exactly is a ‘separation of church and state’ supposed to be like?
According to the establishment clause first proposed by Thomas Jefferson at the Virginia General Assembly in 1779, the American government is prohibited from enacting any law that protects or favors a specific religious sector. As perfectly summarized by constitutional law professor and children’s rights activist, Marci Hamilton, the establishment clause affirmed that “no person is allowed to be a law unto themselves”. Believe it or not, the nation’s ‘Founding Fathers’ agreed that . . .
. . . religion had absolutely no place in the political sphere. And for the first 150 years after its passage, the establishment clause was never questioned.
As decades passed, the United States became more and more diverse and today, the nation is home to over 200 officially recognized religions. With such a diverse range of beliefs and values, it is imperative for the US government to have a distinct separation of church and state. If there was no wall between the church and the state, then religion could be used to excuse crime and escape punishment. Unfortunately, this thick wall built by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison during the 1700s has since dwindled and today, the divide between the church and state is almost invisible.
One of the earlier Supreme Court cases to blur the line between the church and state was the unprecedented Wisconsin v. Yoder case. In 1972, Chief Justice (Judge) Warren E. Burger made a decision that allowed Amish parents to educate their children with a highly limited Amish curriculum instead of the state certified education program. This ruling permitted the Amish to cease education for their children past the 8th grade, and it further isolated Amish boys and girls from the outside world. Despite that the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision certainly had a negative impact on the futures of the children — and later adults — of Amish communities, this ruling led to a series of court cases deciding in favor of extreme religious freedom exemptions, exemptions that are actually unconstitutional.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade this past summer and the ever-increasing rise of Christian nationalism, it is more important than ever that we fight for what is explicitly stated in our Constitution’s First Amendment. The establishment clause protects not only the government but also religion from corruption. When politics and religious beliefs are mixed, religion loses its spiritual significance and becomes a dangerous tool for power and control.
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