SEPARATION OF RELIGION AND STATE

by Jared Feldman

As Jews, members of a religious minority within the United States, we are particularly sensitive to the relationship between religion and state in this nation. The American tradition of religious freedom has enabled the Jewish community to flourish in the most religiously pluralistic nation in history.  The First Amendment’s guarantees of the free exercise of religion and prohibition against the establishment of religion are designed to ensure that Americans of all faiths and of all beliefs can live as their consciences dictate.

 

An important national debate continues about the relationship between religion and state.  This debate has taken on renewed visibility in recent years, as faith is increasingly invoked in both electoral campaigns and the development of public policy, such as the faith based initiative.

 

Proponents of increasing the relationship between government and religious entities argue that the wall separating church and state has resulted in hostility to religion that is to the detriment of religious institutions, people of faith, and society in general. Opponents argue that an increased role for religion in governmental institutions and activities threatens the pluralistic fabric of our society.

 

Religious minorities have thrived in part because of the strong tenets of religious protection that this country has traditionally provided. We are concerned that religious liberty is being threatened by elected and appointed officials who voice exclusionary religious viewpoints using the public forums afforded by their positions.

 

This debate occurs simultaneously with a significant change in the judicial interpretations of the Constitution’s religious liberty clauses. With regard to the Free Exercise Clause, it remains the case that this bedrock freedom upon which this nation was founded remains, essentially, without judicially enforceable protection.  The 1990 ruling of Employment Division v. Smith remains in force, permitting government actions to infringe upon religious practices, with minimal justification.  Moreover, the Supreme Court has, to date, rebuffed Congress’ efforts to reinstate legislatively what the Jewish community believes is the appropriate level of protection for Free Exercise rights.  With regard to the Establishment Clause, recent Supreme Court rulings have shifted away from the doctrine of “strict separation” towards the principle of “neutrality” as a touchstone for this jurisprudence.  While recent court rulings have mandated that government programs and resources must, more than heretofore, treat religious speech, activities, and organizations in the same manner as those that are secular, there remain unresolved legal and policy questions when government funds flow to pervasively religious institutions and programs.

 

In light of these changes and the increasingly divisive rhetoric in the public arena that threatens to polarize our society, it is critical that the Jewish community affirm its historical support for the separation of religion and state.

 

The JCPA believes that:

  • In our increasingly pluralistic society, a clear division between religion and state remains the best way to preserve and promote religious rights and liberties for all Americans, including the Jewish community;
  • Religious institutions and people of faith can and should play a vital role in public discourse.  The separation of religion and state does not mandate silence from such individuals and institutions with respect to matters of public policy.  However, attempts to influence public policy should be tempered by both respect and tolerance for diverse beliefs and practices, as well as the principle that government must treat all its citizens equally, regardless of religious belief or the lack thereof;
  • The public policy agenda of the American Jewish community should be guided by what best serves our community’s values and interests in the context of a democratic and pluralistic society. Even where an increased role of religion in the public square may be judicially interpreted as constitutional, we should continue to oppose changes which we consider detrimental to our core values, the interests of the Jewish community, or the pluralistic nature of our society.

 

The community relations field should:

  • Educate the Jewish and general community about the historic role of separation of religion and state as well as developments in the law regarding the relationship of religion and state and the right to free exercise of religion;
  • Defend the right of religious individuals and organizations to speak, debate, and advocate on matters of public policy where appropriate;
  • Advocate on the federal and state level for policies that promote the full and free exercise of religious liberty by individuals and institutions as well as promote the appropriate relationship between religion and state by insisting that all governmental actions have a clear non-religious, neutral purpose, neither endorse nor unduly inhibit religious practice, and do not extensively entangle government and religion;
  • Engage in dialogue with interfaith partners, including those with divergent viewpoints, about the importance of religious diversity and focus on how religious communities can work together to foster greater respect for different viewpoints;
  • Work in coalitions at the state and federal levels to preserve and promote legislation and constitutional protections that provide for separation of church and state including the protection of the right to religious practice, and oppose legislation and regulations that undermine them.

About the Author


Jared Feldman