Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs
The Church and State Debate
The debate over the Separation of Church and State stretches far beyond the political arena: into our nation's hospitals, our bedrooms, our scientific research facilities, which is what makes a basic understanding of the underlying facts of debate important.

How well do you know the history of God and government in the United States? Learn about it below.

THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION (1788)

The Constitution was totally silent on the subject of religion. The Framers established no national church; delegates of the Constitutional Convention believed that religion was a matter best left to the states. The only mention of religion in the Constitution was that there should be no "religious test" required by any federal officeholders and that one could "affirm" rather than "swear" in taking the oath of office.

Thomas Jefferson was in Paris at the time the Constitution was being drafted. James Madison, who was a strong proponent of leaving religion up to the states, sent him a copy. Jefferson was unhappy with the omission of some form of bill of rights "providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for the freedom of religion."


BILL OF RIGHTS (1791)

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Two things were guaranteed: that Congress will not favor, promote, or endow religion; and that Congress shall not impede, obstruct or penalize religion. Government would simply leave religion alone. However, the language in the Bill of Rights was still vague and open to interpretation.


THOMAS JEFFERSON'S PRESIDENCY

Unlike his predecessors Presidents Washington and Adams, Thomas Jefferson opposed Presidential proclamations for prayer, fasting and thanksgiving. Well-known for his unorthodox religious opinions as well as for his liberal views on religious liberty and the separation of church and state, Jefferson was the writer of Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, which ended all practice of state-supported religion in Virginia when it was enacted into law in 1786.

Jefferson was the one who coined the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, in which he described his understanding of the meaning of the religious clauses of the First Amendment.

Learn more about the debate that surrounds Jefferson's letter from the NOW with BILL MOYERS website.


EVERSON V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1947)

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the separation of church and state and used Jefferson's letter for the court opinion. Justice Black said, "That wall must be kept high and impregnable." Most of the Supreme Court's church-state decisions handed down since this case have been grounded in the Everson standard.



pledgeTHE PLEDGE

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America; and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The words are familiar. Many, if not most, U.S. schoolchildren say The Pledge of Allegiance every morning. But most Americans probably don't know the history of those words, and the changes they've gone through over time. In particular, that the words "under God" weren't added until 1954. (More pledge history.)The under God phrase has come under legal challenge a number of times. In 2004 the Supreme Court in a 8-0 ruling by the high court reversed a lower-court decision that teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional.

flag and gavelCOURT CASES

Church and state cases continue to filter upward toward the Supreme Court. In 2007 the Court declined to hear two such cases: "One was a case from New York on whether church-affiliated employers who object to birth control on religious grounds must nonetheless provide contraceptive coverage to their female employees as part of their medical insurance coverage, as required by laws in New York and some two dozen other states. The other case challenged the refusal of a public library in California to make a community meeting room available for worship services."

In her discussion with Bill Moyers, Martha Nussbaum mentioned a 7th Circuit Court decision by Richard Posner on a taxpayer challenge to the President's program of faith-based initiatives. A lower court had ruled against the plaintiffs, arguing: "The presidentís Faith-Based and Community Initiative was created through a series of executive orders and not by Congress." Judge Posner disagreed, stating that even if the program at issue is the creation of an executive branch agency, it resulted from congressional appropriations, thereby triggering taxpayer standing. The Supreme Court overruled the 7th Circuit decision, ruling "by a vote of 5 to 4, the court ruled that taxpayers could not sue to block federal expenditures that they allege violate the constitutional separation of church and state."



Posted April 18, 2008

Also This Week:

LEILA FADEL
Just back from being under fire in Sadr City this week, award-winning journalist Leila Fadel, Baghdad Bureau Chief for McClatchy, gives viewers on-the-ground analysis of the latest events and close-up look at the state of the war.

MARTHA NUSSBAUM
Bill Moyers talks with Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at University of Chicago, about church and state, and her newest book, LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE: IN DEFENSE OF AMERICA'S TRADITION OF RELIGIOUS EQUALITY.

>MOYERS DIGITAL ARCHIVE: Martha Nussbaum
Bill Moyers talks with Martha Nussbaum about ethics — ancient and modern — in the WORLD OF IDEAS series.

THE CHURCH AND STATE DEBATE
Explore the long history of the church and state debate in American history.

LIFE AND POETRY
Celebrate National Poetry Month with exclusive online videos.

TALK BACK: THE MOYERS BLOG
Our posts and your comments
OUR POSTS
YOUR COMMENTS
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ   
SIGN UP FOR BLOG UPDATES AND PODCASTS EMAIL US