Separating Church and State


Opening Reading

Believing with you

that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God,

that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship,

that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions,

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.

Th Jefferson 1802


Separating Church and State

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY (
on 13 March 2016 by Janeen Grohsmeyer

The story of the “Pilgrims Coming to America” is one of our founding myths. It’s in our school history books. We dress up as Pilgrims in grade school. We remember it every Thanksgiving. And, in the ultimate test of shared knowledge, the story is used in advertising. All of us know that story.

The story also tells us why the Pilgrims came to the New World: Freedom of Religion. They wanted the freedom to worship God in the manner they chose, without being harassed by other people, or discriminated against by laws, or going to jail, or suffering “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Imagine, if you will, living in a land where blasphemy—disagreeing with the established religion—is a crime. If you believe something other than accepted dogma, and you say so, you could be publically flogged. You could be branded, an iron heated in a fire then pressed into your skin to mark you with the letter B. You could have your tongue torn out by the roots, or pierced by a red-hot poker. You could be executed by the state. Just for saying what you believe.

Not a pleasant land. But that’s how it was in England in the 1600s. And so, the story says, the Pilgrims came to the New World in the ship Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock, on November 20, in the year 1620, seeking freedom of Religion. Or at least, freedom for their religion. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Quakers were whipped and imprisoned, and some were hanged. In 1635, Roger Williams was convicted of “sedition and blasphemy.” Two years later, Anne Hutchinson, who believed that God’s grace mattered more than good works was called “an American Jezebel, who had gone a-whoring from God”. They were both tried, excommunicated, and banished from the Colony.

But just about that same time, a few hundred miles to the south, the colony of Maryland was begun. Those settlers had two ships: the Ark and the Dove. They landed on March 25 in the year 1634, on St. Clement’s Island in the Potomac River. We don’t know that story very well. It’s not one of country’s myths.

Yet those Maryland settlers were also seeking religious freedom. Not only that, they were also seeking Religious Toleration. That group of settlers had both Catholics and Anglicans, and they were determined to live together in peace. Five years after their arrival, they officially proclaimed that all Christians were welcome in the province of Maryland, and they repeated that in 1649 with the Act of Toleration.

No person or persons whatsoever within this province … professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion, nor in the free exercise thereof….

The law outlawed the use of the word “heretic” and other religious insults. Employers were forbidden to try to convert servants. However, the law also said that those who blasphemed or cursed God or denied the holy Trinity or the divinity of Jesus, should be “punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heirs”. Obviously, Jews, Unitarians, and Muslims were not welcome, and colonial Maryland was not a religious paradise for all.

But in the 1600s, very few places were. From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years War raged in Europe, and many of the countries aligned along religious lines. Meanwhile, England had its own civil war. Finally, after generations of internal strife, came the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. King William and Queen Mary, both Protestants, were on the English throne.

These decades of political instability, much of which was based on religious affiliation, led to strict laws. In 1700, the English Parliament passed “An Act for the further preventing the Growth of Popery.” Four years later, it became the law in the Royal Province of Maryland, the very colony that had been founded in the hope that people of the Church of Rome and people of the Church of England could exist side by side.

By1720, Catholics were forbidden to worship in public in Maryland. Their churches and schools were closed. Catholic priests were forbidden to perform any public religious ceremonies. Catholics could not vote. They could not practice law. They could not hold public office. They could not serve in the military, and because of that, they were taxed at a double rate to support wars.

They were second-class citizens in a land where loyalty to England meant loyalty to the Church of England too. For how could a person obey the pope, as Catholics were required to do, and still be loyal to the king? If your loyalties are divided, how can you be trusted? When asked to decide between your personal religious convictions and civil law, where do you take your stand?

We hear those same suspicions and concerns today. We heard them two generations ago. In 1960, during a presidential campaign, John Kennedy said, in part:

I believe in an America…

that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source;

where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and

where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist….

Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America …

where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

And in fact, this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died…

That “kind of America” was born in blood during the American Revolution. Freedom of religion—of all religions—is the very first item in the Bill of Rights: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Great Britain, by contrast, has an established Church of England. Civil taxes support it. The reigning British Monarch has the titles “Defender of the Faith” and “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” The Religion and the State are intertwined. That’s true in other countries, too. There is Church of Denmark, a Church of Iceland, and two state-sanctioned churches in Finland. About ten countries list Islam as their official religion, and Israel is officially Jewish.

In the United States, however, religion and state are separate by design. There is no Church of America. No church is to be given preferential treatment above another by the government. Not Anglican. Not Catholic. Not Jew or Unitarian or Episcopalian or Lutheran or Methodist or Mormon or Bahai or Shinto or Rastafarian or Pagan or any of the many, many others in our country. Instead, all are welcome. All religions are supposed to be treated equally, just as all people are supposed to be treated equally. All people are supposed to be at liberty to choose any religion—or to choose no religion.

Liberty . Equality. Justice for all.

High and noble principles. We have not always lived up to them, not as a country, not as a religious denomination, and (probably) not as individuals.

Well, we’re human. We make mistakes. We’re products of our environments. If the year were 1816, some of us might think that slavery is not wrong. If the year were 1916, some of us might think that women don’t deserve the same rights as men. If the year were 1966, some of us might be very concerned with the color of people’s skin. If the year were 1976, some of us might think that heterosexuality is the only decent way to live.

We don’t always see very far ahead. But over the years, our circle of “all” has become bigger. We include more people when we say “liberty, equality, and justice for all.”

Over the years, these high and noble principles have challenged us. They have inspired us. On our long path to justice, these Principles are our beacons, showing us the way.

The principle of Religious Toleration inspired the settlers of Maryland in 1634, and it also inspired the founders of this country nearly 150 years later when they wrote the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights. They had seen the devastation religious wars could cause. They knew the corruption of a state-mandated church. And so, in many ways, our founders made clear their firm belief in the principle of separation of state from church.

In 1790, George Washington wrote to members of the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, saying: “The Citizens of the United States of America … all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

In 1797, the US Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli. John Adams, the second president, signed it. That treaty contains this statement: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

This is our country’s history. This is our legacy.

The Freedom to follow your own conscience, and to speak what you believe without fear, and to join any religious community you choose are precious liberties. Today in the United States of America, we often take them for granted, but they are rare, and they are fragile.

Make no mistake: these freedoms can be taken away. It happened in Maryland three hundred years ago to the Catholics. It happened in Germany eighty years ago to the Jews. It happened in Bosnia twenty years ago; it’s happening in countries around the world right now. Could it happen here? In the United States of America? We’re citizens. We have rights.

Yes, we do.

So did the American citizens who were of African ancestry. For them, different laws applied.

So did the American citizens who were of Japanese ancestry during World War II. They were ordered to live in internment camps.

So did the American citizens who were born female. Their right to vote was added to the Constitution less than one hundred years ago.

We’ve come a long way, and it hasn’t been an easy road. But there’s no guarantee we’ll keep walking in the same direction. George Orwell said, “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”

Before 1956, our country’s motto was “E Pluribus Unum”, which means “Out of Many, One.” Now we have: “In God we trust.” In our pledge of allegiance, we used to be “one nation indivisible”. We are now “one nation under God.” That raises the question: Which god?

Whose god? The Anglicans’ god? The Catholics’ god? The Muslims’? The Buddhists’? Should the government decide which god we’re supposed to trust in?

The tolerance of our neighbors can disappear, especially during a time of crisis or a war. The climate of suspicion and fear can grow. Then the laws can be changed.

So please consider…

What history are people in this country learning today? What do you hear on TV? On the radio? What founding myths do people believe? How is our nation being changed?

Do you hear stories of our long and honored legacy of religious toleration? Do people speak of a country that “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” and therefore “gives to bigotry no sanction”? Do you hear people speak with pride of a country where all faiths are respected, where no religious test is required to hold an office, where discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color is against the law?

These are the founding principles of the United States. They are also, in many ways, founding principles of Unitarian Universalism.

They are beacons to us all.

So, when someone says or writes:

-This is a Christian nation, and America was founded on Christian principles.

Or -Our laws should be based on the Bible, and the 10 commandments belongs in every courtroom.

Or –Atheists can’t be good citizens. Moslems can’t, either.

Or – They have no right to build a house of worship there

Or – Paganism isn’t a real religion

Consider how will you respond. With a discussion? Some historical Information? A letter to the editor? A post online in the comments?

Or will you be silent and let it slide?

It’s up you, of course. We have Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Choice in this country.

Let’s keep them. And may the beacon of Religious Tolerance shine to brightly through the ages to come.


Closing Reading

If we have wisdom

to make the best use of the advantages

with which we are now favored,

we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government,

to become a great and happy people. …

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

The Government of the United States,

which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,

requires only

that they who live under its protection

should demean themselves as good citizens

in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

G. Washington 1790

One response to “Separating Church and State

  1. Very nice reminders of our responsibilities in not just honoring the beliefs of others, but speaking up when we hear those “others” belittled. (And thanks for the history lesson!)

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