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Separation of church and state

The separation of church and state is a concept in law whereby the structures of state or national government are kept separate from those of religious institutions. The concept has long been a topic of political debate. The term "church" is associated with Christianity, but the phrase is usually used to refer to religion and religious institutions in general. In countries where other religions are dominant, the words mosque, temple, or synagogue are often substituted.

There are a variety of views regarding the degree of separation that should exist between church and state. Some, often referred to as secularists, assert that state should be kept entirely separate from religion. Others assert that the state ought to be permitted to become involved with religion (such as by giving financial support), but ought not establish one religion as the state religion, require religious observance, or legislate dogma. Others, sometimes known as theocrats, assert that the state should be inseparable from religion, and advocate an established church; this position is otherwise known as antidisestablishmentarianism. A related topic is civil religion.

The separation of church and state is related to freedom of religion, but the two concepts are different and one should not infer hastily that countries with a state church do not necessarily have freedom of religion, nor should one infer that a country without a state church necessarily enjoys freedom of religion. The strongest form of established church, where religious law and authority are used to set state policy, is known as a theocracy.

While there are many states that permit freedom of religious belief, none allow unrestricted freedom of religious practice. Laws against bigamy, sex with children, human sacrifice, or any crime are enforced even if such practices are part of a group's religious beliefs.




Main article: Separation of church and state (ancient)

While varying greatly from state to state, the interaction between Church and State could at times become total. Roman emperors were considered divine, and controlled the state religion. According to the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israel was also a theocracy.


Main article: Separation of church and state (medieval)

In the West, the separation of church and state during the medieval period saw monarchs who ruled by divine right and papal authorities who claimed to wield God's earthly authority. This unresolved contradiction in ultimate control of the state led to power struggles and crises of leadership that resulted in a number of important events in the development of the west.


Main article: Separation of church and state (modern)

In a number of countries in the modern world, many countries have varying degrees of separation of church and state. Some states are stricter than others in disallowing church influence on the state. In some countries, however, (such as Iran), the two institutions are heavily interconnected.


There are a number of proposed reasons to support a separation of church and state:

  • The rights of the minority have historically been violated by the rights of the majority. Members of a non-majority religion often find themselves persecuted, socially shunned, and harassed.
  • The church might harm the state. For example, religious conviction might cause the state to become involved in a disastrous war, or to remain pacific when force is necessary for the preservation of the state. It may also influence public policies in a manner detrimental to those who do not follow all the church's teachings; for instance, a ban on homosexual activity (see sodomy law) decided for religious reasons, harms those who feel they have the right to such practices. In addition, religious conviction may make political debate difficult, it being impossible to contradict arguments which, essentially, arise from personal faith. Granting them official status allows politicians to use religion as an argument from authority.
  • The state might harm the church. For example, the state might dictate a religious ceremony that the church's dogma declares is wrong; or, the state may force the participation of religious people in some aspect of civic life in a manner that offends their religious convictions and offends their conscience; or, the state may discriminate in favor of one church and against members of other churches.

Secularism and theocracy

Secularism is the belief that the government should be a secular institution; that is, have no state religion, have no legislation that outlaws or favors one religion over another, and have no religiously motivated regulations on the eligibility of the nation's politicians. A secular state has no power over the nation's churches and the nation's churches have no political powers over the members of the government. A related notion is the French la´citÚ.

Many Western democratic nations place a high importance on the separation of church and state. Some nations, such as the United States of America and Canada, even have specific clauses in their constitutions which are widely interpreted as forbidding the government from favoring one religion over another.

Other democracies, such as Argentina or the United Kingdom, have a constitutionally established state religion, but are inclusive of citizens of other faiths. In countries like these, the head of government or head of state may be legally required to be a member of a given faith. Powers to appoint high-ranking members of the state churches are also often still vested in the worldly governments. These powers may be slightly anachronistic or superficial, however, and disguise the true level of religious freedom the nation possesses.

The opposite end of the spectrum from secularism is a theocracy, in which the state and state religion are inseperable, and the rule of law is based on interpretation of a religious texts such as the Bible or the Qur'an. Examples include Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and Iran, in state affairs are managed by religious authority or by its explicit consent. In such theocracies, a citizen is considered to be a member of the state religion merely due to his citizenship, and is subject to religious injunctions and is legally required to believe and worship appropriately.

Secularists generally do not hold that the state must be opposed to religion. However, traditionalist religious critics of secularism often consider secularism to be a departure from tradition in the direction of atheism. Those who believe that the state has religious obligations, or that it must be informed by religious values, often regard secularism as atheism.


Separation of church and state occurs in different ways:

  • legal separation
  • voluntary separation, such as by churches teaching that religious ceremony should be confined to either the church or the home.

Some countries of the world have a stable separation between church and state, while other countries are in a state of political unrest over the separation. The 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State started considerable controversy and even riots.

Separation of church and state is a notion related to, but separate from, freedom of religion. There are many countries with an official religion, such as the United Kingdom or Belgium, where freedom of religion is guaranteed. Conversely, it is possible for a country not to have an official religion, or a set of official religions, yet to discriminate against atheists or members of religions outside of the mainstream. For instance, while the United States does not officially advance any particular religion, proponents of atheism were persecuted in many US jurisdictions in the 19th century.

There are different interpretations of the notion of separation of Church and State:

  • one sees this separation from a legal and financial point of view: the State should not establish nor fund religious activities, and may even be prohibited from funding non-religious activities affiliated to religious organizations;
  • another sees this separation in keeping religious beliefs out of the motivations of public policies, preventing interference from religious authorities into state affairs, and disapproving of political leaders expressing religious preferences in the course of their duties.

For instance, France is legally prohibited from funding religious activities (except for Alsace-Moselle and military chaplains), but funds some private religious schools for their non-religious activities as long as they apply the national curriculum and don't discriminate on grounds of religion; yet religious motivations are usually kept out of the political process.

Countries with stable separation

Different countries have different approaches to the separation of church and state.


Since the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, religious freedom has been guaranteed and state religion has been outlawed. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution says:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. [1]

Some Australian judges (see Murphy ([2])) have gone as far to say that the government cannot support religious schools, even if done in a non-discriminatory way. The High Court of Australia, however, has consistently allowed funding of religious schools.

The issue of separation between religion and state is generally less contentious than in the United States. The Australian Parliament still holds prayers at the start of each sitting day and has since federation. Attendance at the prayer services is optional but many Members of Parliament do attend.


The Canadian view on Church and State is largely similar to the view in the United States. Unlike the US however, the Canadian constitution acknowledges that Canada is founded "under the supremacy of God." [3]

As well, Canadian religious schools in certain provinces receive some government funding, despite their exclusive nature.

Canada also observes the British Monarch as its head of state, an office which is deeply religious in nature (see United Kingdom, below).

The Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of Her Majesty The Queen in Right of Canada v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] (1 S.C.R. 295) ruled that a 1906 statute that required most places to be closed on Sunday did not have a legitimate secular purpose, and was an unconstitutional attempt to establish a religious-based closing law (see Blue law.)


Since 1905, France has had a law requiring separation of church and state, prohibiting the state from recognizing or funding any religion. According to the French constitution, freedom of religion was already a constitutional right . The 1905 law on secularity was highly controversial at the time. France adheres to the notion of la´citÚ, that is, noninterference of the government into the religious sphere and non interference of religion into government, and a strict neutrality of government in religious affairs.

References to religious beliefs by politicians to justify public policies is considered a political faux pas, since it is widely believed that religious beliefs should be kept out of the public sphere.

Public tax money supports some church-affiliated schools, but they must agree to follow the same curriculum as the public schools and are prohibited from forcing students to attend religion courses or to discriminate against students on the basis of religion.

Churches, synagogues, temples and cathedrals built before 1905, at the taxpayers' expense, are now the property of the state and the communes; however they may be gratuitously used for religious activities provided this religious use stays continuous in time. Some argue that this is a form of unfair subsidy for the established religions in comparison to Islam.

The Alsace-Moselle area, which was administered by Germany at the time the 1905 law was passed and was returned to France only after World War I, is still under the pre-1905 regime established of the Concordat, which provides for the public subsidy of the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church and the Jewish Religion as well as public education in those religions. An original trait of this area is that priests are paid by the state; the bishops are named by the President on the proposal of the Pope. Controversy erupts periodically on the appropriateness of these and other extraordinary legal dispositions of Alsace-Moselle, as well as on the exclusion of other religions in Alsace-Moselle from this arrangement.

See also: la´citÚ


In Germany, church and state are declared by law to be separate, but some large churches can get special status from the state as a "corporation under public law" which allows the churches to levy taxes against the members of the church in return for a collection fee paid to the state. Most public schools give religious instruction; its teachers are educated at public universities under some church supervision. Parents, or students 14 years old and above, can decide not to take those religion classes, but most federal states then demand that classes in "ethics" or "philosophy" be taken instead. Religious schools, which receive the majority of their funding (but never all of it) from the state, exist in most parts of the country; however nobody can be compelled to attend them. The Federal Administrative Court recently ruled that the Berlin Islamic Federation was a qualified religious community under Berlin law (which differs considerably from most of the rest of the country); hence, the Berlin State Government decided to begin Islamic religious instruction in public schools in areas with significant Islamic populations. There was considerable public controversy when the Federal Constitutional Court declared a Bavarian law requiring a crucifix in every classroom to be unconstitutional in 1999; Bavaria replaced it with a law still demanding the same, unless parents file a formal protest with the state. Germany continues to determine which religions merit federal protection; a significant (but ebbing) controversy remains over the German government's denial of this protection to the Church of Scientology. [4]


Article 20 of the constitution of Japan, drafted in 1946 and currently in use, mandates a separation of religious organizations from the state, as well as ensuring religious freedom: "No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice. The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity." However, like the CDU of Germany, Japan is not without a pollitical party that has religious affiliation, namely the New Komeito Party has affiliation with Buddhism. Less than one percent of Japanese population are Christian.

Historically, during World War II, before the current constitution was drafted and when the Japanese Empire was an undemocratic nation, Shintoism was strongly backed by the government, which placed emperor Hirohito, a shinto god, at the head of state.


By passing through the numerous phases of colonial occupation, the relationship of the church and state in the Philippines has repeatedly changed from the collaboration of the Roman Catholic Church with the government during the Spanish era to the generally accepted separation today.

Recent events For current reports on the status of the church and state in the Philippines, check the International Religious Freedom Report 2002 by the U.S. Department of State.

See also: Separation of church and state in the Philippines


The Lutheran church and state were partially separated in 1999. The Church of Sweden still maintains special status. It is now possible to register new religious organizations, but they lack the same special status and the ability to perform legally binding services such as marriage and burials.

There are ongoing efforts to remove the special status from the former state church. Marriage can now be performed by anyone who has received a certificate.


Turkey considers itself as a country with a strong separation of church and state since Kemal AtatŘrk's westernization movement in March 3, 1924 by removing the caliphate system from Islam. However in practice this means a subordination of religion to the state rather than what Westerners would call separation. Sunni Islam, the majority religion, is largely organized by the Turkish government through the "Department of Religious Affairs", and is state-funded; independent Sunni communities are illegal. Minority religions, like Alevi Islam or Armenian or Greek Orthodoxy, are guaranteed by the constitution as individual faiths and are mostly tolerated, but this guarantee does not give any rights to religious communities. However the Treaty of Sevres gives certain religious rights to Jews, Greeks, and Armenians, but not, for example, to Syrian-Orthodox.

United States of America

Main article: Separation of church and state in the United States

In the 1600s and 1700s, many Europeans immigrated to what would later become the United States. The primary reason for many was the desire to worship freely in their own fashion. These included a large number of nonconformists such as the Puritans and the Pilgrims as well as English Catholics. However, with some exceptions, such as Roger Williams of Rhode Island, most of these groups did not believe in religious toleration and in some cases came to America with the explicit aim of setting up a theocratic state.

Today, most Americans hold the separation of church and state to be one of their nation's key political values. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." According to various constitutional scholars (and repeated decisons by the Supreme Court of the United States), neither the federal nor the state governments can perform any action or make any policy which blatantly favors one faith or church over the others, or which favors belief or non-belief over the other. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution has also been interpreted to extend the mandate for religious freedom and separation of church and state to all state and local governments. (Notably, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas disagrees with this interpretation).

The court-enforced separation does not extend to all elements of civil religion. By law, the country's currency carries the motto "In God We Trust". Congress begins its sessions with a prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance contains the phrase, "one nation, under God". Court rulings have uphold these apparently religious references, viewing them as non-substantive "ceremonial deism" or utilizing other legal theories. Recent lawsuits have unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the status quo. Some expressions of religion on public property, such as certain displays of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms or Nativity scenes on public land have been recently ruled to be unconstitutional.

Religion plays a strong role in national politics, especially in controversial moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality. Direct church-state issues also arise, currently including the question of whether or not school vouchers should be used to help parents pay for primary and secondary education at religious schools, and the status of the faith-based initiatives of the current President, George W. Bush.

The most prominent religious participants national politics are Evangelical Christians, largely allied with the Republican Party and in the so-called Bible Belt of the Southern and Midwestern United States, but other Protestants (including predominantly liberal sects), Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, non-believers, and other faiths are also quite active. Some religious groups wish to increase the ability of government to make various religious expressions; they often emphasize the largely Christian demographics and history of the country.

It is common practice for national politicians with strongly religious constituencies to cite religious texts or beliefs in support of certain policies. In other areas voters may be more disapproving of expressions of religious faith by political candidates and government officials.

Although religious requirements for officeholders are prohibited, politicians not reflecting the majority faith in their constituency are in most places considerably less likely to get elected. Nearly every President has had a Christian religious affiliation. (See: List of U.S. Presidential religious affiliations.) At least 90% of the 105th Congress from 1998 was known to be Christian, with Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists alone comprising over half of it [5]. Local demographics, and thus the religious affiliations of local politicians, are more varied.

Other countries

The status of the separation of church and state in almost any country around the world, as seen by the US government, can be viewed by clicking on the appropriate geographical region in the left panel of the Web page maintained by the United States Department of State.

Countries with stable state churches


The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church have a status protected by law. Both churches have the right to levy an income tax on their members and corporations run by their members, and the tax is collected by the state. The administration of the state churches is regulated by their respective church laws, which are drafted by the churches and enacted by the parliament. State universities provide training for the clergy of the state churches. The general direction has been to restrict and remove the privileges of the state churches, and as of 2004, in most other official business (such as officiating marriages) any registered religious community has a status comparable to that of the state churches.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, there are two state-approved churches. The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian while the Church of England is Anglican. The former is a national church guaranteed by law to be separate from the state, while the latter is a state-established church and any major changes to doctrine, liturgy or structure must have parliamentary approval. Neither Wales nor Northern Ireland currently have established churches: the Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920; the Church of Ireland in 1871. The king or queen must promise to uphold the rights of the Presbyterian church in Scotland and the Anglican church in England. He or she is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England but an ordinary member of the Church of Scotland. Neither church receives direct funding from taxation. State schools must provide religious instruction and regular religious ceremonies, though parents may withdraw their children from either; the choice of religion left up to the school governors, but in the absence of an explicit choice it is by default "broadly Christian"; the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church operate many state-funded schools and there are a small number of Jewish and Muslim ones. Senior Church of England bishops have a right to sit in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.


[Various other countries can be listed here ....]

Countries in flux


From the foundation of the Kievan Rus dynasty until the institution of bolshevism, Russia maintained very close ties between the officially recognized religion, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the government. These bonds became tightest under tsar Peter I ("Peter the Great"); in 1721, the office of Patriarch of Moscow was eliminated and replaced with a "Holy Governing Synod", presided over by an Imperial appointee and regulated by Imperial law. From that point until 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church was explicitly a department of the Russian government.

After the October Revolution and bolshevik coup, the government of the Soviet Union was quite active in religious affairs, even though it was theoretically atheist and purely secular. Between 1917 and 1922, Soviet authorities executed 28 Orthodox Bishops and over 1,000 priests. A government-sponsored "renovation" known as the Living Church was instigated in May of 1922 as a replacement for the Russian Orthodox Church. It was eliminated in 1943 during the Second World War, but state intervention in religious affairs did not end, and religion was highly regulated and controlled until the end of the Soviet Union.

On October 9 and November 10 of 1990, the Russian Parliament passed two freedom of conscience laws that formally disestablished the Russian Orthodox Church as the state church of Russia (this step had never actually been explicitly taken in the Soviet Union). In 1997, however, the Russian Parliament passed a law restricting the activities of religious organizations within Russia. Complete freedom is given to any religious organization officially recognized by the Soviet government before 1985: the Orthodox Church, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. The basis for consideration as an official religion of the Russian Federation is supposed to be a 50-year presence in the state. According to this criterion, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and the Baptist faith should all enjoy official status as Russian religions. However, this is not the case. Non-official religions are strictly limited in that they are not permitted to operate schools or import non-Russian citizens to act as missionaries or clergy. Likewise, they must annually re-register with local officials.

This act has been sharply criticized as antithetical to the concept of freedom of religion, especially in countries with religious organizations that expend a great deal of money and effort in proselytizing.

The Russian government also engages in practices that have been accused of being discriminatory against citizens who profess faiths other than Orthodox Christianity. In the Russian armed forces -- for which there continues to be universal conscription -- no form of religious worship other than Orthodox Christian is permitted. Thus, conscripted Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (despite their ostensible religious freedom granted in the 1997 law) are prohibited from engaging in prayer, even if they do so in solitude.


Religious arguments for separation

Many religious believers, including Jews, Christians and Muslims, support the separation of church and state in the belief that it protects their religion from the coercive power of government.

The Puritans, early settlers to the United States, emigrated from Britain in order to worship in accord with their conscience, free from the oppressive and coercive power of the state religion. Some then created state churches to their liking in the colonies.

Many Baptists support separation also, and hold the assertion that separation of church and state does not mean separation of God and state.

Thomas Jefferson reflected this same religious basis for belief in the separation of church and state: "Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either . . . ." [6]

Many Christians, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, interpret Biblical passages such as Christ's admonition to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God what is God's" as a warning that the State has a strong tendency toward corruption, and therefore religious involvement in government is more likely to corrupt the religion than to benefit the state.

Since the 5th century, the Coptic Church has advocated separation of church and state. Most Unitarian Universalists advocate separation of church and state.

Secular arguments for separation

Some non-religious people desire the legal separation of church and state to keep superstition out of government. For example, many atheists, agnostics and freethinkers believe it inappropriate for government to be controlled by a religion.

The United States Supreme Court held in Lemon v. Kurtzman that state action must have a secular purpose, which neither advances nor inhibits religion: "The Establishment Clause forbids the enactment of any law 'respecting an establishment of religion.' The Court has applied a three-pronged test to determine whether legislation comports with the Establishment Clause. First, the legislature must have adopted the law with a secular purpose. Second, the statute's principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Third, the statute must not result in an excessive entanglement of government with religion. Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-613, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 2111, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971).

When the Louisiana state legislature passed a law requiring public school biology teachers to give Creationism and evolution equal time in the classroom, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it was intended to advance a particular religion, and did not serve the secular purpose of improved scientific education. [7] See also, Creation and evolution in public education.

Also, religious texts such as the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed in public buildings for the purpose of converting people to a religion. That is, religious people cannot display religious symbols on public property with the purpose of advocating their religion. There are still many exceptions to the general rule. [8]

Religious arguments against separation

There is a spectrum of views among believers regarding the separation of church and state.

Some hold that while the state should not establish a particular state religion or require religious observance because of the dangers noted above, it still must be infused with the ethics and values of religion generally if it is to operate properly, and ought to encourage ethical and beneficial religious belief of all types, both inside and outside of government. They argue that the teachings of religion are the basis of law and civil society, and that a society which discourages the promulgation of those beliefs cannot function successfully. Further, these groups argue that religious groups ought to be involved in politics, to assure that laws are passed which reflect the Truth of religion. Some, such as the Christian Coalition, have become highly and vocally involved in promoting what they believe to be Christian values in government.

The Catholic Church's 1983 canon law proclaims that "Christ's faithful are to strive to secure that in the civil society the laws which regulate the formation of the young also provide a religious and moral education in the schools that is in accord with the conscience of the parents." [9]

Other believers hold that the State ought to maintain an established church, a position described as antidisestablishmentarianism.

Islam holds that political life can only function properly within the context of Islamic law. To such believers, since God's law is Truth and beneficial to all people, any state law or action opposed to God's law would be harmful to the citizens, and displeasing to God. Many Muslims find the Western concept of separation of Church and State to be mere rebellion against God's law. There is a contemporary debate in Islam whether obedience to God is ultimately compatible with the Western secular pattern, which separates religion from civic life, as opposed to Islamic ideals of toleration.

A reverse view is that the state should provide a default religion for the large number of citizens who wish to identify themselves as religious believers without actively choosing between the various alternatives. A slightly more extreme version of this is that the state should determine (or at least have the power to determine) the doctrine and structure of the state religion - this is the position in England, and has links to ideas underlying Erastianism. There need not be obligation on individuals to follow the state in religion in such cases.

Many religious people in America believe that prayer in the schools will improve the morals of American children, and they maintain that the Supreme Court's banning of prayer from the schools does not protect religion but rather harms religion. "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. " [10] These religious groups do not consider the Supreme Court's ban on teacher-led prayer to be legitimate but rather a distortion of constitutional language and history.

Secular arguments against separation

Some non-believers, like Charles Maurras, thought that the influence of the Catholic Church was necessary for the continuation of their country and their political objectives.

External links

U.S. Government views on separation around the world

  • Click on the appropriate geographical region in the left panel of the country reports on religious freedom from the United States Department of State

American court battles over separation

  • 1947, the first instance of legal separation
  • 1962, banning teacher-led prayer from public schools
  • 1987, declared the Creation Act invalid, which had mandated the teaching of Creation if Evolution was taught
  • 1992, banning prayers given by clergy as a part of an official public school graduation ceremony.

American activism in favor of separation

Origins of the phrase

Islamic activism in favor of separation

Last updated: 10-26-2005 09:10:30
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