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Mr. VanEngen, a member of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa, is a practicing attorney.

Throughout the history of the United States, citizens have often referred to the “wall of separation between church and state.” The concept is usually referred to when questions arise either because of government limitation on the activity of churches, or when the institutions of the state include religious practices or symbols, such as the old controversy over prayer in public schools. In recent years, different individuals and groups have increasingly challenged the role of religion in public life, often challenging practices that have been taken for granted for years, such as the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance. Such attacks are met with staunch resistance from conservative evangelical groups. As this article goes to print, the United States Supreme Court is about to issue an opinion dealing with the display of the Ten Commandments on public property,1 an issue that it has avoided ruling on for several years.

This article will examine a brief history of the issue of separation of church and state, some recent developments, and the implications for the church for the future.

The constitutional provisions dealing with the separation between church and state are located in the first amendment to the constitution. Interestingly, the first amendment does not refer to a wall of separation between church and state, and the words “separation,” “church,” and “state” do not appear at all. The language simply reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The phrase “wall of separation between church and state” is not in the Constitution, but was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 as he wrote a letter to a Baptist congregation. Jefferson pointed to the language of the first amendment in assuring them that the recently organized government would not impinge upon their freedom to worship. A widespread rumor had been circulating that Congregationalism was to become the national religion, and Thomas Jefferson sought to reassure them that this was not the case. He did so by drawing on a statement that had been made by a Baptist minister, Roger Williams, about a wall of separation constructed by God between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.

This anecdote reveals the context in which the first amendment was adopted. Many citizens of the United States had immigrated seeking religious freedom, coming from countries such as England, where the state church, the Church of England, imposed heavy restrictions on worship by other religions or denominations. The amendment was intended to guard against a similar situation in their new country.

The first amendment is actually made up of two clauses, referred to as the Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) and the Free Exercise Clause (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). Although the two clauses would appear to be intended to promote the same goal, that of prohibiting a state religion so that individuals can engage in the free exercise of any religion, the law has developed in such a way that the two clauses are often in conflict. Most often this conflict arises because of an attempt to use the government to perform functions that it should not be used for, such as education of children.

The conflict appears already in the 1948 McCollum case.2 That case involved private religious teachers giving instruction in public school facilities. The supporters of this practice argued that they had the right to exercise their religion, but the Supreme Court ruled that when the public facilities were used for religious instruction, this violated the Establishment Clause. The line of cases involving public schools continued to the point that Bible reading was prohibited in Schempp,3 and even a moment of silence for voluntary prayer was ruled unconstitutional in Wallace.4

In 1970, the Supreme Court established a three-prong test, and action must meet all three prongs in order to be upheld: 1) it must have a secular legislative purpose, 2) its primary effect must not be either to advance or inhibit religion, and 3) it must not foster excessive government entanglement in religion.5

On the one hand, some of this limitation may be for the best. The traditional “Christian” majority in the United States is slipping away,

and by some reports the number of people who consider themselves Protestant Christians is declining. If our children attended public schools, we wouldn’t want them to be led in prayer by someone who is praying to Buddha. On the other hand, we would want them to be able to pray on their own. This is one reason we can be thankful for the freedom to establish our own covenant schools.

The underlying conflict arises because those who do not profess to be Christians are still guaranteed an equal voice by law. Therefore, similar problems arise with public expressions of faith in many areas of our pluralistic society. Dr. Michael Newdow raised the ire of many Christians when he filed suit to have the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional because it contains the phrase “under God.” His suit was thrown out by the Supreme Court, but only because the Court found that he lacked standing, or the capacity to sue.

As Reformed believers, we recognize that all men must acknowledge that all things are “under God,” so one can understand why Dr. Newdow would fight against the Pledge. If a Muslim majority were to gain control of the Congress and would amend the Pledge to state “under Allah,” would we want to recite it? Obviously not. Dr. Newdow is an avowed atheist and obviously wishes to remove any language acknowledging that our nation, and all of creation, are under the sovereign dominion of the Almighty Creator.

If the Court does eventually hear a case on the Pledge, it may be upheld under the Lemon test on the basis that the main thrust of the Pledge is patriotic, not religious. However, the fact remains that many will only pay lip service to the idea that our nation is “under God.”

Another such issue that the Supreme Court has previously declined to address on a number of occasions is the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings and courthouses. Not long ago, Chief Justice Roy Moore, of the Alabama Supreme Court, received national media attention over this issue when he was removed from office for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from his courthouse.6 Those opposed to such displays argue that by the use of them the state is implicitly endorsing a particular religion, in this case the Christian faith. Those in favor of such monuments argue that the decalogue forms the basis for the laws in the United States, regardless of religion, and therefore have a secular basis under the Lemon test. But looking around at American society today, it would be hard to argue that our society even remotely adheres to a prohibition against having any gods other than Jehovah. Adultery is no longer penalized, but is instead glorified by Hollywood. Our modern American society does not any longer even pause on the Sabbath day, much less remember it to keep it holy. Any laws which did require adherence to these tenets have long since fallen away.

We certainly wish to maintain our freedom to exercise our religion for as long as possible, and certainly also ought to hold God’s truths before the world around us, primarily through the preaching. We cannot set aside our religious beliefs when engaging in the activities of government, whether that be as a voter, a concerned citizen writing a congressman, or a government employee. But while the state does bear the sword, so that we can freely exercise our beliefs, the state is not the proper vehicle to promote our beliefs. In a pluralistic, democratic society, we cannot expect the government to be able to incorporate aspects of our religion in a way that is pleasing to God. One has only to think of the watered-down, “non-denominational” prayers that are offered at public functions to try to appease everyone and to avoid the Establishment Clause.

Government involvement in matters of religion is not conducive to the purity of doctrine in the church, as was shown repeatedly by the history of the Netherlands in the struggles of the Reformed fathers with the state church in that country. The footnote to Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, as it appears in our Psalter, contains an instructive quote from the Acts of Synod 1910 of the Christian Reformed Church. The language reads, in part, as follows:

Both State and Church as institutions of God and Christ have mutual rights and duties appointed them from on high, and therefore have a very reciprocal obligation to meet through the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from Father and Son. They may not, however, encroach upon each other’s territory. The Church has rights of sovereignty in its own sphere, as well as the State.”


While we may enjoy seeing the symbols of our faith included in public displays, such as the Ten Commandments, we must expect that a pluralistic society whose values are rapidly diverging from our own will resent those symbols and seek their removal. This is not to justify the antichristian spirit that motivates their efforts, but it is a mistake to conclude, when the state does incorporate prayers or displays such as the Ten Commandments, that our nation as a whole shares our beliefs. For the purity of the church, it is best that the separation of the state from the church be maintained as much as possible. For Reformed believers, the primary concern is when that movement to restrict the exercise of religion through public institutions becomes an effort to restrict the exercise of religion in public.

1.McCreary County, Kentucky v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (U.S. Supreme Count, No. 03-1693); Van Orden v. Perry, (U.S. Supreme Court, No. 03-1500).

2.McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948).

3.Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).

4.Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985).

5.Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1970).

6.Jeffrey Gettleman, Alabama Panel Ousts Judge Over Ten Commandments, New York Times, November 14, 2003, §A, at 16