Misunderstanding the Separation of Church and State

Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department have stepped in to assist Temple Baptist Church in its lawsuit against the city of Greenville, Mississippi. The church held a drive-in service on Wednesday, April 8. Police arrived and issued $500 citations to each of the cars in attendance. While Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves has counted churches as "essential", Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons banned any in-person or drive-in services. The Justice Department argued that banning drive-in services that follow social distancing guidelines is unconstitutional, violating the first amendment religious freedom provision. AG Barr said, "Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens" (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/justice-department-defends-mississippi-drive-church-service-n1183761).

Mayor Simmons' actions, while seemingly well-meaning and intended for the benefit of the public safety, add to a storied history of misunderstanding the first amendment and the phrase "separation of church and state". While the original British colonies were founded by Puritans escaping religious persecution from the state controlled Church of England, the idea of freedom of religion in the United States formally dates back to Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786. This document states, “… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced … in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” James Madison used similar language in his 1792 essay "On Property", saying, "In the latter sense, a man has property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them."

Jefferson further outlined the idea in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. In this letter he coined the term "separation of church and state", explaining the purpose of the first amendment in protecting the people from a state established religion or government preference for a specific religion. More recently this phrase and the first amendment have been misused. Politicians have understood them to mean freedom from religion, not freedom of religion, hoping to limit the interaction between politics and religion. While the US government is not a theocracy (nor should it be), religion has an important place within the public sphere that is essential to the maintenance of a free society.

While citizens should follow state and federal guidelines for social distancing to help curb the spread COVID-19, Mayor Simmons overstepped his authority by banning drive-in church. Yes, the church could have streamed its service online, however they were still fulfilling the requirements outlined by the government. AG Barr and the Justice Department have acted prudently and justly by upholding the constitutional principles outlined by Jefferson and the Founders. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but reason must guide these decisions first and foremost.

(For more info on religious freedom check out: https://time.com/5103677/church-state-separation-religious-freedom/)

Photo credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images file

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