Why we don’t mix church and state: By Dianne Post

This article originally ran in the Arizona Republic on Feb. 8, 2016, and is reprinted with permission.

By Dianne Post

The chaos at the Phoenix City Council meeting on Feb. 3 is precisely why religion and government should be kept completely separate. To try and enforce one viewpoint is not only contrary to the Constitution, law and founders, it’s contrary to common sense.

The First Amendment is clear and cannot be overturned by majority vote. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment or religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

The First Amendment is not the only place in the Constitution that prohibits religion. In Article VI, paragraph 3, it states that elected representatives are bound by an oath to the Constitution, not the bible, and that “… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

When John Kennedy ran for office in 1960 as the first Catholic, he had to be very clear that, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs.”

Yet today, from presidential candidates down to city council members, public officials are racing to establish their religious bona fides, religious schools are siphoning off public tax dollars, preachers tell their parishioners how to vote and Catholic bishops dictate medical treatment to doctors.

This does not make religion or society stronger.

In fact, James Madison said, “It was the universal opinion of the century preceding the last, that civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment, and that the (Christian) religion itself, would perish if not supported by a legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The civil government though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.”

Other presidents, too, such as Rutherford B. Hayes, have pointed out that both the public and the private spheres are stronger when they are kept separate: “We all agree that neither the government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the government or with political parties,” Hayes wrote. “We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference.”

Jimmy Carter needs not burnish his religious credentials, and he, too, said, “I think the government ought to stay out of the prayer business . . .”

Too many have today forgotten the lessons of our history. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The lessons of religious toleration — a toleration which recognizes complete liberty of human thought, liberty of conscience — is one which, by precept and example, must be inculcated in the hearts and minds of all Americans if the institutions of our democracy are to be maintained and perpetuated.”

An Iraq War veteran, who spoke at the Phoenix City Council hearing, described how in that country members of one sect kill others just because they believe in something different. Council Member Thelda Williams said she received death threats, and another public official told me she received hate mail for suggesting an imam give an invocation.
This hatred and fear as demonstrated at the City Council meeting are precisely why religion and government must remain separate. Religions are protected from government meddling and interference with their ideas of faith and conscience, and those of us who are nonreligious or of minority religions are also protected from government or religions interfering with our ideas and our conscience.

We should listen to the wisdom of our founders and the words of our Constitution and eliminate all public invocations.

Dianne Post is an international human rights attorney who represented battered women and children in Phoenix for 18 years before embarking on international work in the field of gender violence. See “Meet a Member” profile on this page for more.

Freedom From Religion Foundation