“America is faced with the greatest crisis in its history. We are in danger of losing our nation, and our God-given freedoms to those who disdain the God of our nation’s founders. If that should happen, our opportunity to help fulfill the Great Commission throughout the United States and the world could also be lost.” –Bill Bright
If we are to keep our religious freedoms secure, we would do well to understand the difference between Separation of Church and State, and Segregation of Church and State.
In 2015, the Bremerton School District in Washington State effectively fired coach Joseph Kennedy for praying on the 50-yard line following a football game. He filed suit against the Bremerton school district.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled on the case. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor once again misconstrued Thomas Jefferson’s concept of Separation of Church and State. She wrote that the majority opinion “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise…over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.” Apparently, she believes we must censor religious speech in order to protect religious liberty. Hmm.
Fortunately, in this case the Constitution won. Coach Kennedy’s Constitutional rights were upheld. However, Justice Sotomayor and the other dissenting Justices are not alone in advocating for censorship of religious speech under the guise of Separation of Church and State. Unfortunately, they have exchanged Separation of Church and State for Segregation of Church and State.
How did Separation of Church and State devolve into Segregation of Church and State? How did Freedom of Religion mutate into Freedom from Religion? How did we go from protecting the religious beliefs of every American citizen to censoring religious speech?
On December 16, 1620, the pilgrims landed in America, fleeing religious persecution, fleeing tyrannical governments who prohibited the free exercise of religion, requiring compliance with a uniform creed. Within this context, the Founding Fathers opened the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with these words:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
What that means is, Congress shall not establish a State Church like the Church of England, nor in any other way regulate or censor religious speech. In other words, the federal government must wear a gag when it comes to religion, deferring to the individual citizen at all times in all places. It may never censor the religious speech of any individual in any setting simply because it is religious speech. That is what religious toleration means. It means “Hands off!”
Please look carefully at the wording of the First Amendment. It does not say, “…prohibiting the free exercise thereof unless….” It says “…prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Period. There is no “unless.” There are no caveats, no exceptions. In other words, every American citizen is entitled to the free exercise of their religion at all times in all settings. That includes florists, bakers, photographers, fire chiefs, school teachers and high school football coaches.
In case that was not clear enough, in the very next clause of the First Amendment, our Founding Fathers further clarified their intent with the words, “or abridging freedom of speech.” In other words, not only is the federal government to wear a gag regarding regulating religious speech; it is to wear a gag regarding all speech. Government may not prefer one form of speech (religious or secular) over another. It must actively protect all forms of speech. The only clear exception is when the physical safety or liberty of the American people is at stake since it is the responsibility of the government to protect “life” and “liberty.”
That is why the 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp Supreme Court decision is problematic at best. Not only did the Supreme Court vote to outlaw Bible reading and prayer in schools, it mandated that all activity in public schools must have a “secular purpose.” For the first time in our history, the Court gave “secular” speech a clear preference over religious speech, kicking religious belief to the back of the bus. If there is a specific point at which Separation of Church and State mutated into Segregation of Church and State, that was it.
Furthermore, do you remember Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist association where the term “Separation of Church and State” comes from? Let’s look carefully at what he actually said:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence the act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
He said, the (federal) legislature should “make no law….” “Make no law,” was the central point. That single restriction on government is what he said built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Let me ask you, when a florist declines to make flowers for an event that contradicts her religious beliefs is that a legislature making a law? When a baker chooses to not make a wedding cake because of his religious beliefs is that a legislature making law? When a fire chief teaches the Bible’s view of homosexuality in his own church is that the legislature making a law? When a coach prays on the 50-year line is that the legislature making a law? Of course, the answer is “No!” Citizens exercising their right to free speech and freedom of religion can in no wise be interpreted as making a law. Jefferson’s clear intent was to emphasize that the government can “make no law” regulating or prohibiting the religious practices or speech of its citizens. Separation of Church and State gags government, not individual American citizens. How far we have fallen from Jefferson’s vision.
So, let me summarize everything I have said so far. Separation of Church & State mandates that the federal government must wear a gag when it comes to the “free exercise” of religion. It may never prohibit the free exercise of religion in any setting at any time. Conversely, Segregation of Church and State occurs any time government censors religious speech, preferring secular speech over religious speech—in effect booting religious speech to the back of the bus.
Let me say that again: Segregation of Church and State occurs any time the government censors religious speech, preferring secular speech OVER religious speech.
Like Jefferson, I wholeheartedly embrace Separation of Church and State, however I categorically reject all forms of Segregation of Church and State where religion is kicked to the back of the bus; where secular speech is given preference over religious speech; where religious speech is censored simply because it is religious.
So, where do we go from here?
I believe the first step is for each of us to learn to recognize the difference between Separation of Church and State and Segregation of Church and State. Separation of Church and State gags the government. Segregation of Church and State gags individual citizens.
The second step is for each of us to start using the term Segregation of Church and State to describe every instance of government censoring the religious speech of its citizens. Words shape how we think. Words shape culture. Simply by changing the words we use to describe government censorship of religious speech we can help shape how the culture views the government’s role on matters of religious belief.
The third and most important step is to go out and make God the issue every day. Those who disdain God have often intimidated Christians into silence with the mantra, “Separation of Church and State.” Now you know what it really means. Now you know it was intended to gag the government, not you.
God is the issue. If we do not make Him the issue, we will eventually lose what is left of our religious freedoms, as well as all our other God-given freedoms. It is time for followers of Jesus to shine brightly in the darkness—without apology.
Listen to Episode #10 of my podcast to hear more on this critical issue!