Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Separation of church and state

The separation of church and state is a concept in law wherein the functions of state or national government are kept separate from those of religion. It has long been a topic of political debate.

Table of contents
1 Motivations
2 Secularism and theocracy
3 Enactment
4 Countries with stable separation
5 Countries with stable state churches
6 Countries in flux
7 Religious believers who want separation
8 Believers against separation
9 Non-believers who favor legal separation
10 References


There are a number of reasons given to want a separation of church and state:

Secularism and theocracy

A commonly advocated position is 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.

Many western democratic nations place a high importance of the separation of church and state. Some nations, such as the United States of America and Canada even have specific clauses in their constitutions that forbid the government from favoring one religion over another.

Other democracies, such as Argentina or the United Kingdom have the distinction between church and state that is slightly more blurred. These nations may have a constitutionally established State religion, but still be very inclusive to 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 however, and disguise the true level of religious freedom the nation possesses.

Secularists generally do not hold that the state must be atheist—that is, 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.

The opposite end of the spectrum from secularism is a theocracy in which a religion controls the government and the rule of law is closely tied with the interpretation of a religious texts such as the Bible or the Koran.

A few nations in the Middle East such as Iran have political policies which are often directly dictated or strongly infuenced by religious leaders.

Many religions, such as Catholicism and Islam, hold that one must not separate Church and State. 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." [1]

Islam holds that all political life must exist within Islamic 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.

At the same time, some religions appear to advocate such separation. For example, many Christians, such as Jehovah's Witnesses interpret Biblical passages such as Christ's admonition to Render onto Caesar that which is Caesar's as a warning not to be involved in civil governments. One common theme among such religions is that the world and the government are hopelessly corrupt and that religious involvement in government would corrupt the religion more than it would save society.


Separation of church and state occurs in different ways:

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 officially the United States does not endorse 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:

For instance, France funds some private religious schools, yet religious motivations are usually kept out of the political process; on the other hand, in the United States such funding would be questionable at best (although in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers were constitutional]], but religious beliefs are often cited by leading public figures as justification for public policy.

Countries with stable separation

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


Since 1905, France has had a law requiring separation of church and state, prohibiting the state from recognizing or funding any religion; the French constitution; freedom of religion is a constitutional right. The 1905 law was highly controversial at the time.

References to religious beliefs 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.

For historical reasons, the Alsace-Moselle area 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.

Following public emotion after the criminal activities of some cults such as the Order of the Solar Temple, the state has established a commission investigating cults, known in its current incarnation as MIVILUDES. A report by members of the French parliament (see: Politics of France) identified some religious organizations, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses as cults; though this report has no legal standing, some local governments have used this list to refuse public services, like the rental of public spaces. Jehovah Witnesses have alleged fiscal persecutions, but it is unclear whether tax services really pursued them unfairly or whether they were simply incompetent in establishing their tax-exempt status. A controversial 2001 law strenghtened dispositions against groups engaging in criminal activities as well as people abusing of the mental weakness or distress of others.

Under the Clinton administration, the United States Government published several reports alleging lacks of freedom of religion in France with respect to "new religions" [1]. The accuracy and impartiality of those reports are disputed.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the Anglican Church is a state-established church, and the king or queen must promise to uphold the church, but the Anglican Church receives no direct funding from tax money. Public schools must provide religious instruction and regular religious ceremonies, with the choice of religion left up to the local voters. [1]


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, and the Federal Administrative Court recently ruled that the Islamic Federation was a qualified religious community; hence, the Berlin State Government decided to begin Islamic religious instruction in public schools in areas with significant Islamic populations. Germany continues to determine which religions merit federal protection; a significant controversy remains over the German government's denial of this protection to the Church of Scientology. [1]


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

United States of America

The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.James Madison.

In the 1600s and 1700s, many Europeans immigrated to 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 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.

The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." The phrase, "separation of church and state", does not appear in the Constitution, however is usually seen as being implied from the prohibition against established churches. The two prohibition are rather contradictory, and one common theme in court rulings in the United States is to resolve situations with the estatablishment clause and the free exercise clause contradict each other.

At the time of the passage of the Bill of Rights, several states had established churches, and the prohibition against the Federal interference with religion (like most of the other rights in the Bill of Rights) was understood to be a limitation on the Federal government, but not the power of state governments.

For example, in 1854 the State Supreme Court of Maine declared that the local school board had the right to expel a fifteen-year old girl for refusing to read aloud a portion of the King James translation of the Bible to her class; her family's religion required her to read only the Douay Catholic translation of the Bible. [1]

The constitutional situation changed drastically with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment which extended the limitations of the Bill of Rights to limit the power of state governments.

Until 1947, American courts interpreted the First Amendment as keeping Congress from interfering with the state decisions on which religion, if any, the state would establish.

In 1962, the United States Supreme Court banned from public schools all public prayers and religious readings done for religious purposes. The Supreme Court continued to allow private prayer. As such, any teacher, faculty, or student can pray in school, in accord with their own religion. However, they may not lead such prayers in class. "Non-sectarian" teacher-led prayers are not allowed, e.g. "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country."

The court noted that it "is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America." [1]

As authorized by state law, the "Almighty God" prayer had followed the teacher-led pledge of allegiance to the flag which consisted of the following: "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." In a controversial move in 1954, the United States Congress inserted the phrase "under God" into the pledge of allegiance for much the same reason that the state legislature had required the "Almighty God" prayer—namely to "acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator." The Supreme Court banned the "Almighty God" prayer and not the "under God" pledge. In 2002, a Court of Appeals held that a California law requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional; the case has since been appealed to the Supreme Court, but no decision has been issued.

Controversies regarding separation in the United States

Some—especially devout Christians—believe that the United States Supreme Court has made a logical mistake in using the Establishment Clause to separate church and state by force of law.

The founding fathers did not prohibit all religious references in official contexts. The Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the United States, contains four references to God. While the Declaration is a rebuke to the notion of a Divine Right of Kings, and it can be argued that references to God were unavoidable because it is responding to a religious concept, its particular wording goes further than the minimum required for this, expressing implicit faith in God, and reliance on God for the founding of the United States. However, the Constitution, which is the legal framework of the United States, does not refer to God (other than referring to its ratification as occurring in the "Year of our Lord 1787").

While sometimes questioned as possible violations of separation, the appointment of official chaplains for government functions, voluntary prayer meetings at the Department of Justice, voluntary prayer at meals in U.S. armed forces, inclusion of the (optional) phrase "so help me God" in the oaths for many elected offices, FBI agents, etc., have been held not to violate the First Amendment, since they fall within the realm of free exercise of religion.

Relaxed zoning rules and special parking privileges for churches, the tax-free status of church property, the fact that Christmas is a federal holiday, etc., have also been questioned, but have been considered examples of the governmental prerogative in deciding practical and beneficial arrangements for the society. The annual holiday of Thanksgiving, and the national motto, "In God We Trust", are clear violations of strict separation, but they are not inconsistent with the religiosity expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Most of the relevant decisions (school prayer, pledge, etc.) have been based on the use of coercion by the State to promote religious dogma. Many decisions note that even if the State has no intention to promote one particular religion, in practice the predominant religious make-up of a school often makes those of a minority religion feel unwelcome or hated.

Regarding the display of religious symbols on public property during holiday seasons, one exception has been cases in which competing religions and non-religion have equal opportunity, although their displays are often not guarded from vandalism, etc.

The operation of the American "separation of church and state" highlights the difficulty of enforcing laws in a society that encourages the open expression of conflicting religious beliefs. The issue of prayer in the schools will provide a convenient comparison of the points of view in the American unrest over the separation of church and state.

Generally, a majority of voters in America favors prayer in schools, depending upon how the poll is phrased. But the Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause as giving minority religions protection against having the majority religion forced on them by the state. [1]

Other countries

The status of the separation of church and state in almost any country around the world 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 Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church has a status protected by law. It automatically collects tax from all who do not actively leave the church and join the "civic register". In the legislature the only separation is that those who do not belong to the state church, are not allowed to vote on laws concerning the internal disposition of the church.

Countries in flux


From the foundation of the Kievan Rus dynasty to the institution of
bolshevism, Russia under the old regime maintained very close ties between the officially recognized religion and the government. These bonds became tightest under tsar Peter I ("Peter the Great"), when the office of Patriarch of Moscow was eliminated in 1721 and replaced with a "Holy Governing Synod", presided over by 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 old Soviet Union actually 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. In 1922, 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). However, in 1997 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. All other 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 freedom of religion, especially in countries with religious organizations that expend a great deal of money and effort in prosetylization. However, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (Greek Orthodox) had the following to offer in interpretation:

Many Protestant missionaries from the West whose voices were not heard during the decades of oppression have come not to lend support, but to convert Orthodox believers. These so-called missionaries claim to be Christians, but they behave as wolves in sheep’s clothing.
New York Times, Oct. 25, 1997)

Religious believers who want separation

Many religious believers, including Jews, Christians and Muslims, want the separation of church and state to protect their religion from other religions.

Thomas Jefferson justified the separation of church and state based on his religious belief that "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 . . . ." [1]

Believers against separation

Many religious believers, usually fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, believe that their God should guide and direct the state; they hold that there should be no separation between Church and state. However, religious believers cannot agree on whose God or gods, and which interpretation thereof, should be demanded.

Some religious believers hold that one can have a sort of intermediate position, in which a general belief in God and the Bible should be upheld by the state, but not the beliefs of any one specific church. This school of thought holds that religion is a fundamental and essential part of many moral and ethical values, and that the removal of public displays of religion from government is a form of religious discrimination, in that it prohibits them from exercising their religious views in a forum of government. These groups also object to the idea that holy writings, such as the Bible and the Qur'an, are not used as the foundation of the law.

Several religious groups are heavily involved with politics. Some, such as the Christian Coalition, have publicly stated their intent to abolish the separation of church and state, and introduce their own religious views and agenda into the lawmaking process.

Many religious people in America think that prayer in the schools will improve the morals of American children, and they think that the Supreme Court's banning 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. " [1] 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.

Non-believers who favor legal separation

Some non-believers want the legal separation of church and state to keep superstition out of government.

For example, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers believe that it would be a bad idea for government to be controlled by a religion.

When fundamentalists attempted to force biology teachers to teach the Genesis creation story if they taught evolution, the Supreme Court ruled that labeling a religious doctrine as "science" was insufficient to allow it to be taught to a child in public school for the purpose of converting the child to a religion. [1]

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. [1]


World views on separation

American court battles over separation

American activism over separation