Separation of Church and State

The concept of separation of church and state describes the legal boundaries between organized religion and the nation state. In simplest terms, it refers to the philosophy of preventing a government from establishing a national religion, enacting laws that either favor one faith over another, or legally barring the practice of a particular belief.


For centuries, in all corners of the world, monarchs ruled by the idea of divine right, some even claiming to be gods themselves. However, in the West, this began to fall out of favor during the Enlightenment as a number of political philosophers began to argue against this basis for government authority. The proliferation of new ideas and varying denominations of Christianity eventually led some people to flee Great Britain in the hopes of religious freedom. One well-known group of such refugees were the pilgrims who migrated to America. After the American Colonies revolted and established the United States, the concept of separation of church and state was integrated into the First Amendment of the Constitution.

United States Constitution

Many are surprised to know the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. However, the First Amendment does state that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This phrase is broken into two concepts: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

In its decisions, the United States Supreme Court has referenced the separation of church and state in more than 25 separate cases, though not always holding that the metaphor is an accurate description of the Constitutional protections. For example, in Reynolds v U.S., the Court held that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment did not protect polygamy as a religious practice for Mormons in Utah.

For more information about the separation of church and state, please review the materials below. Additionally, should you need legal assistance with your particular issues, please turn to our Law Firms page where you can find a list of attorneys in your area.


Separation of Church and State - US

  • DOJ - Religious Discrimination and Religious Freedom

    Religious freedom is one of the United States’ founding principles, protected by the First Amendment and other federal laws. The right against religious discrimination is likewise one of our basic civil rights. When Congress enacted the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the height of the civil rights movement, in addition to barring discrimination based on race, national origin, and sex in a wide range of areas, it also barred discrimination based on religion.

  • International Religious Freedom Act

    The right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States. Many of our Nation's founders fled religious persecution abroad, cherishing in their hearts and minds the ideal of religious freedom. They established in law, as a fundamental right and as a pillar of our Nation, the right to freedom of religion. From its birth to this day, the United States has prized this legacy of religious freedom and honored this heritage by standing for religious freedom and offering refuge to those suffering religious persecution.

  • Religion and the Law

    This section is intended to inform Christians of the laws and legal decisions that impact our faith and the free exercise of our beliefs. We also cover legal cases and bills in congress that are currently being considered. It is our obligation to stay informed of how the laws of the United States allow for, or infringe upon our first amendment rights. When you click on a link on this page, you'll be directed to a synopsis of the decision or law and, where possible, another link to view the raw text of the legal decision or legislation.

  • Separation of Church and State - Overview

    The concept of separation of church and state refers to the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation state. The term is an offshoot of the phrase, "wall of separation between church and state," as written in Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1802. The original text reads: "...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

  • Separation of Church and State - Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment

    The First Amendment gives citizens the Freedom to Worship God without Government interference. Assures that the Government will not establish a State Religion. That people are free to speak their minds without the government arresting them. Granting citizens to publish news that may be critical of the government without fear of arrest or fines, and finely the right of citizens to peacefully gather together or march in rallies or parades.

  • The Constitution and Religion

    To say that religion is a big topic of interest to a lot of people in the United States today is a bit of an understatement. It would, however, be incorrect to say that because of the great deal of attention religion and government is getting today, it is a more important topic now than ever before. On the contrary, religion and government has been a matter of great importance and concern to many for centuries.

Organizations Related to Separation of Church and State

  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU works in the courts, in Congress and the state legislatures, at the White House and in the arena of public opinion.

  • Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights

    The Catholic League is the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization. Founded in 1973 by the late Father Virgil C. Blum, S.J., the Catholic League defends the right of Catholics – lay and clergy alike – to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination. Motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, the Catholic League works to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened.

  • Christian Answers - Separation of Church and State

    As the concept is commonly understood today, the government has never passed a law implementing the "separation of church and state." The First Amendment simply states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Over the years, however, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have reinterpreted this amendment in many ways. This reinterpretation of the Constitution has in effect become the “law” supposedly dictating the "separation of church and state."

  • First Amendment Center - Religious Freedom

    The First Amendment was written because at America's inception, citizens demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms. Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for social change.

  • Institute on Religion and Public Policy

    An international, inter-religious non-profit organization, the Institute is dedicated to ensuring freedom of religion as the foundation for security, stability, and democracy. Founded in 1999 and headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute recognizes that religious freedom is more than just a church-state issue. As such, the Institute engages every segment of society to protect humankind’s most basic fundamental right: freedom of religion and belief. The Institute’s programs reflect this multi-faceted approach, in national security, corporate social responsibility, interfaith dialogue and media engagement.

  • Religion and Law Consortium

    Welcome to what we hope will become the premier Internet site for researchers seeking information about issues related to freedom of religion or belief. This new site replaces the original ReligLaw site that you might have seen before. We are continually working to upgrade the site and its document submission and access processes.

  • The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life - Church-State Law

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution charges the government with guaranteeing religious freedom while prohibiting it from advancing the interests of any one faith. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a host of church-state issues, from school prayer to the placement of religious displays on public property. But observers across the political spectrum often find these court decisions perplexing, with different standards, principles and tests being applied at various times.

  • United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

    USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF's principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.

  • United States Department of State - Office of International Religious Freedom

    The Office of International Religious Freedom has the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. Headed by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, its Office Director and staff monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom.

Publications Related to Separation of Church and State

  • Department of State - Report on International Religious Freedom

    The International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998.

  • Journal of Church and State

    The Journal of Church and State seeks to stimulate interest, dialogue, research, and publication in the broad area of religion and the state. JCS publishes constitutional, historical, philosophical, theological, and sociological studies on religion and the body politic in various countries and cultures of the world, including the United States.

  • Religion and Politics - American Political Science Association

    Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Religion & Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Peer-reviewed, original research into all aspects of the relationship between politics and religion around the world. Analyzing the impact of religion on political attitudes, decision-making, and public policy development. Topics range from abortion laws, sex education in schools, and stem cell research to transnational terrorism, morality, social justice, and human rights.

  • ReligiousLiberty.TV

    ReligiousLiberty.TV, launched in June 2008, is a leading independent online resource for news, information, commentary, and insights on contemporary issues involving the free exercise and establishment clauses of the United States Constitution. Today’s rapidly evolving Constitutional landscape has led to countless ambiguities and uncertainties in legislation, public policy, and jurisprudence and has provided immediate opportunities for concerned citizens, religious leaders, elected officials, and attorneys to increase knowledge about these issues while ensuring that independent viewpoints are protected.

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