Separation of church and state
|It doesn't stop at the water's edge:|
|Random strands and actors|
Separation of church and state is the political position that the civil government should not have any involvement in religious matters, and vice versa. While not a universal trait of all Westernized governments, such a position is enshrined in the constitutions of a number of countries, including the United States (through its constitution's "no religious test" clause and First Amendment), Turkey, and France, and exists de facto in some countries.
The concept of separation sprang from the ecclesiastical abuses of the Middle Ages, where European city-states were essentially vassals of an often-corrupt Roman Catholic theocracy. This arrangement carried over into the English colonies that later became the United States, where in some of the colonies the Church of England was the established church. Dissenters (non-Church of England Protestants such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Baptists) did live in the colonies but were subjected to varying degrees of toleration. During the American Revolution, many of these dissenter groups seized on the opportunity to seek disestablishment. Due to experiences with religious repression in both the Old World and the New World, many of the founders of the United States (along with many of their correspondents in the churches of the new country) felt that the best way to protect the country from the hegemony of any one religion was to word either the state or national constitutions to require the government show no favoritism towards any church, first with the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, then in the national constitution with a clause in Article VI forbidding the government from requiring any employee to belong to any specific faith (the so called test-oath clause), later forbidding any civil involvement with religion at all with the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and affirming the whole enterprise by the Jefferson-era Treaty of Tripoli. Other governments, most notably that of revolutionary France, followed suit.
 The middle approach
Between those who would see religion purged from all public environs, and those who embrace it in all its forms, and more, judicial and political moderates favor some form of compromise under which certain religious expressions, by virtue of their distance from any particular sect, and continuous use over time, are seen as areligious cultural and historical landmarks, rather than sectarian expressions.
This approach has been embraced by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. During her tenure on the high Court, she evaluated first amendment challenges to public religious displays by examining the totality of the circumstances, and asking whether, in this context, the religious display appeared to have been placed with an exclusionary message. O'Connor, for example, distinguished between a Ten Commandments display placed on a courthouse lawn in recent memory by a fundamentalist politician (invalid; excessive entanglement of church and state) and one placed one hundred years ago and only recently challenged (permissive use of religious imagery, as a historical landmark).
- Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists: The Origin and Meaning of the "Wall of Separation" Metaphor by Derek H. Davis
- Pretty much says it all.