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Separation of Church and State and the First Amendment

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Abstract

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that the government cannot interfere with the religious choices of citizens. This includes preventing or forcing religious activities upon someone as well as supporting or establishing a religion. This is an important matter in the field of education because from it has emerged the concept of separation of church and state. This means that a line must be drawn to separate religion from public schools. Because the wording of the Amendment is broad and somewhat vague, the United States Supreme Court has addressed many issues related to this topic to determine the Constitutionality of many programs and issues in an attempt to draw that line.

Separation of Church and State and the First Amendment

Europeans first settled North America in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. During this time, the first thirteen American colonies were founded, developed, and took on their own unique qualities. In 1776, the colonies declared their independence from England and were governmentally joined by a document called the Articles of Confederation, which established the first federal government for the first thirteen states (Rakove, 1999).

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was held to draft the United States Constitution, which would replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation. There were two opposing sides involved in the development of the Constitution, with the major focus being the role and power of the central government. The Federalists, who supported the Constitution, believed that America needed a strong central government. The Anti-Federalists were afraid of such a government, particularly because the Constitution did not grant individuals protection from the government itself. Eventually, the idea of adding a bill of individual's rights drew the support of the Anti-Federalists (American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 1997). Thomas Jefferson referred to such a bill as ".... what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse." (ACLU, 1997, 1). In 1971, the Bill of Rights was drafted by James Madison and became part of the Constitution with the passage of the first ten amendments (ACLU, 1997). These amendments were designed to protect the individual's personal freedoms and liberties.

For the most part, the wording of the Constitution and its amendments is unclear and broad. Perhaps this is the result of changing times and innovations in technology. Nevertheless, as new problems, issues, or questions arise in modern times, there must be an entity that is responsible for applying the intent of the Constitutional documents. Because the provisions of the Constitution are not self-defining, it is the responsibility of the United States Supreme Court to provide the necessary interpretation and apply it to new and changing situations. This court is regarded as the ultimate authority on what the Constitution means and its interpretations become law which must be followed by all (Kanovitz, Kanovitz &, Klotter, 1999, 33).

One issue that has created controversy and received much attention from the Supreme Court over the past several decades is the First Amendment. It states:

Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the

free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (Gitelson, Dudley &, Dubnick, 1993, A-9)

Although this amendment addresses the guarantee of several rights to the American people, only the issue of religion will be discussed here, specifically that of the separation of Church and State and its relationship with schools. In its simplest form, free exercise of religion means that the government cannot interfere with an individual's choice of religious beliefs. Therefore, it cannot mandate a specific religion to follow, nor can it prevent a religious practice. Unfortunately, this is a vague and broad statement that requires further interpretation because it does not address social or governmental policies that may exist. For example, some educational or social policies may offend particular religious beliefs or attendance in school might violate another. The First Amendment does not directly address these types of specific issues. It would be simple to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, however that would also violate the amendment by showing favoritism to particular religions (Gitelson et al., 1993, 98).

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment deals with the prohibition of establishing a religion. It was written to prevent the federal government from declaring and supporting a national religion, but it is unclear as to whether it was written to prevent the government from supporting Christianity in general (Linder, 2004). Over the years, the Establishment Clause has sparked quite a bit of debate. Ultimately, two opinions have arisen regarding how it should be interpreted. The accommodationist interpretation is the looser of the two. This opinion is that the Constitution did not forbid governmental interaction with religion as long as all religions are treated equally. Opponents to this idea maintain a broader view of its meaning. They believe that the framers of the Constitution intended to ban all governmental involvement in religion; requiring a complete separation of government and religion creating a 'wall of separation' between the church and state (Gitelson et al., 1993, 99).

It is important at this point to clarify an issue related to the applicability of the First Amendment to the states that establish schools and their standards. As written in the Amendment, the federal government is prohibited from interfering with a citizen's religious choices. It makes no mention of state government. Consequently, one may wonder how the separation of church and state could stem from this amendment. The answer is quite simple. In 1868, the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment empowered the Supreme Court to apply the Bill of Rights to the states through its due process clause. It forbids the states from depriving any person of life, liberty or property without applying due process of law. In order to provide the process that is due under the law, the Bill of Rights is the reference point. As a result, the guarantees that are contained in the Bill of Rights have been incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause and made binding on state governments (Klotter, Kanovitz &, Kanovitz, 1999, 23).

Over the years, the United

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