An accurate recounting of history is necessary to appreciate the need for disestablishment and a separation between church and state. The religiosity of the generation that framed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (of which the First Amendment is the first as a result of historical accident, not the preference for religious liberty over any other right) has been overstated. In reality, many of the Framers and the most influential men of that generation rarely attended church, were often Deist rather than Christian, and had a healthy understanding of the potential for religious tyranny. This latter concern is to be expected as European history was awash with executions of religious heretics: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim. Three of the most influential men in the Framing era provide valuable insights into the mindset at the time: Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams. Franklin saw a pattern:
If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [England] and in New England.
Benjamin Franklin, Letter to the London Packet (June 3, 1772).
The father of the Constitution and primary drafter of the First Amendment, James Madison, in his most important document on the topic, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785), stated:
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. . . . What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people.
Two years later, John Adams described the states as having been derived from reason, not religious belief:
It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses. . . .Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Vol. 4, 292-93 (Charles C. Little & James Brown, eds., 1851).
Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are examples of early discord. In Massachusetts, the Congregationalist establishment enforced taxation on all believers and expelled or even put to death dissenters. Baptist clergy became the first in the United States to advocate for a separation of church and state and an absolute right to believe what one chooses. Baptist pastor John Leland was an eloquent and forceful proponent of the freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. For him, America was not a Christian nation, but rather should recognize the equality of all believers, whether Jews, Turks, Pagans [or] Christians. Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. He proposed an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution in 1794 because of the evils . . . occasioned in the world by religious establishments, and to keep up the proper distinction between religion and politics.”
Pennsylvania, dubbed the Holy Experiment by founder William Penn, was politically controlled by Quakers, who advocated tolerance of all believers and the mutual co-existence of differing faiths, but who made their Christianity a prerequisite for public office, only permitted Christians to vote, and forbade work on the Sabbath. Even so, the Quakers set in motion a principle that became a mainstay in religious liberty jurisprudence: the government may not coerce citizens to believe what they are unwilling to believe. If one looks carefully into the history of the United States religious experiment, one also uncovers a widely-shared view that too much liberty, or licentiousness, is as bad as no liberty. According to historian John Philip Reid, those in the eighteenth century had as great a duty to oppose licentiousness as to defend liberty.
Establishment Clause Doctrine
The Establishment Clause has yielded a wide array of doctrines (legal theories articulated by courts), each of which is largely distinct from the others, some of which are described in Professor McConnells and my joint contribution on the Establishment Clause. The reason for this proliferation of distinct doctrines is that the Establishment Clause is rooted in a concept of separating the power of church and state. These are the two most authoritative forces of human existence, and drawing a boundary line between them is not easy. The further complication is that the exercise of power is fluid, which leads both state and church to alter their positions to gain power either one over the other or as a union in opposition to the general public or particular minorities.
The separation of church and state does not mean that there is an impermeable wall between the two, but rather that the Framers fundamentally understood that the union of power between church and state would lead inevitably to tyranny. The established churches of Europe were well-known to the Founding era and the Framers and undoubtedly contributed to James Madisons inclusion of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, and its ratification. The following are some of the most important principles.
The Government May Not Delegate Governing Authority to Religious Entities
The Court has been sensitive to incipient establishments of religion. A Massachusetts law delegated authority to churches and schools to determine who could receive a liquor license within 500 feet of their buildings. The Supreme Court struck down the law, because it delegated to churches zoning power, which belongs to state and local government, not private entities. Larkin v. Grendels Den, Inc. (1982). According to the Court: The law substitutes the unilateral and absolute power of a church for the reasoned decision making of a public legislative body . . . on issues with significant economic and political implications. The challenged statute thus enmeshes churches in the processes of government and creates the danger of [p]olitical fragmentation and divisiveness along religious lines.
In another scenario, the Supreme Court rejected an attempt to define political boundaries solely according to religion. In Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (1994), the state of New York designated the neighborhood boundaries of Satmar Hasidim Orthodox Jews in Kiryas Joel Village as a public school district to itself. Thus, the boundary was determined solely by religious identity, in part because the community did not want their children to be exposed to children outside the faith. The Court invalidated the school district because political boundaries identified solely by reference to religion violate the Establishment Clause.
There Is No Such Thing as Church Autonomy Although There Is a Doctrine that Forbids the Courts from Determining What Religious Organizations Believe
In recent years, religious litigants have asserted a right to church autonomythat churches should not be subject to governmental regulationin a wide variety of cases, and in particular in cases involving the sexual abuse of children by clergy. The phrase, however, is misleading. The Supreme Court has never interpreted the First Amendment to confer on religious organizations a right to autonomy from the law. In fact, in the case in which they have most recently demanded such a right, arguing religious ministers should be exempt from laws prohibiting employment discrimination, the Court majority did not embrace the theory, not even using the term once. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. (2012).
The courts are forbidden, however, from getting involved in determining what a religious organization believes, how it organizes itself internally, or who it chooses to be ministers of the faith. Therefore, if the dispute brought to a court can only be resolved by a judge or jury settling an intra-church, ecclesiastical dispute, the dispute is beyond judicial consideration. This is a corollary to the absolute right to believe what one chooses; it is not a right to be above the laws that apply to everyone else. There is extraordinary slippage in legal briefs in numerous cases where the entity is arguing for autonomy, but what they really mean is freedom from the law, per se. For the Court and basic common sense, these are arguments for placing religion above the law, and in violation of the Establishment Clause. They are also fundamentally at odds with the common sense of the Framing generation that understood so well the evils of religious tyranny.
Amendment I – The United States Constitution