The United States is a purely secular country and was founded on the ideal that government should be completely separated from any religious sect. The term “separation of church and state”—a quote from Thomas Jefferson—is the most common label for the freedom of religion guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the constitution. Unfortunately, many modern citizens and elected officials have begun to twist the ideal of the 1st Amendment to facilitate religious discrimination and the imposition of religious laws over non-believers.
The first sentence of the 1st Amendment reads as such:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
—1st Amendment of the Constitution—
The 1st Amendment establishes a double-edged separation of church and state; one side of this separation prevents religion from taking control over the government, while the other side prevents government from interfering with religious expression.
The first edge of the separation of church and state prevents the state from establishing a religion. No legislation, either on the federal or state level, is constitutionally allowed to sanction or officially enforce a religious ideology; any law based upon a religious doctrine (ex. Muslim Sharia laws) is considered a violation of this amendment. In addition to preventing religious laws from being enacted, this separation prevents and official endorsement of a religion by the state (ex. mandating public prayer), and prevents the establishment of a state religion/church.
The Second edge of the separation of church and state ensures that the government cannot interfere with personal religious practices. Except in extreme cases (ex. human sacrifice), the government is barred from stopping of obstructing religious expression by individuals.
In modern politics, several right wing factions have begun to attack the very idea of the separation of church and state. Numerous political groups and politicians (ex. Rick Santorum) have begun to actively deny that this separation exists, and openly seek to establish religious laws. Unfortunately, three fundamental misunderstandings surrounding the separation of church and state have aided these individuals in their quest to erode the 1st Amendment and impose their religious doctrines over secular society:
The separation of church and state does not prevent the government from stopping people from imposing their religion on others
The right to free exercise of religion is a personal right, and you have no constitutional right to impose your religion over anybody else. The government is not only allowed, but obligated, to step in and prevent an individual or organization from violating the religious practices of another. Just as everybody has the right to practice their religion, they also have the right not to be interfered with by other religions.
Many religious Americans are upset when their attempts to impose their religious practices over others are thwarted-they claim that their religious overreach is actually a religious practice and see any attempt to protect society from their religion to be an attack on religious liberty.
In the last several years, there have been large debates over the rights of homosexuals to marry, and the right of employers to refuse to cover contraception; both of these issues are examples of religious individuals attempting to impose their religion on society. If an employer’s religious beliefs dictate that they should not take contraception, they may choose not to take contraception, but they may not refuse to offer contraception in their employees’ insurance plans. If an individual believes that homosexuality is a sin and that gay marriage immoral, they are perfectly within their rights not to be gay and not to marry somebody of the same sex; however, they have no right to refuse others of the right to be gay or get married.
Religious beliefs do not exempt the religious from having to comply with civil laws
Even with the 1st Amendment separation of church and state, an individual’s religious beliefs do not supersede the obligation to follow civil laws. Any exercise of religious beliefs that violates secular laws or endangers other citizens is not protected under the aegis of religious freedom.
Functionally speaking, this limitation on religious expression prevents people from shielding anti-social behavior by claiming that it is protected by religious freedom. For example: despite the fact that the bible actively promotes the execution of gays, rape, slavery, human sacrifice and genocide, these anti-social behaviors are not protected religious practices.
In modern politics, many politicians have begun attempting to carve religious exemptions into the civil law and allow religious individuals to have their own set of laws. The most pervasive examples of these exemptions are the attempts to insert conscience clauses into state medical laws. Numerous states have passed, or tried to pass, laws which would allow Christian doctors to refuse contraception or abortion services, even if this would risk the life of the mother.
Put plainly, the recent attempts to allow religious Americans to live under a different set of rules than secular Americans are wrong. You must follow the civil laws, regardless of whether or not they conflict with personal religious convictions. If you are a doctor who does not want to perform abortions, you have no right to take a job which would put you into the situation where you must perform an abortion to protect the mother, but then refuse to do your job—you can still be a doctor, but not one that may be required to perform an abortion (ex. and anesthesiologist). Amish individuals have the right to their beliefs, but they have no right to sue for discrimination when they are hired as a bus driver yet refuse to drive a bus because of their religion
Freedom of religion is also the freedom from religion
Just as the separation of church and state protects the right of individuals to practice their religion, it also protects the right of an individual to practice no religion. Atheism is not a religion, but it is accorded the same legal rights of any religious group. The right to not believe in god is protected and any attempt to infringe upon this right should be fought with the same level of intensity as any other type of religious bigotry.
Any attempt to impose institutional prayer or inscribe the idea of a god upon the public, regardless of the religion, is a violation of the separation of church and state. Those who argue that they can mandate prayer because they don’t specify a religion which must be practiced (ex. official school prayer), are simply wrong and must be fought.
The most extreme examples of bigotry against atheists can be found in cases of custody battles where the atheist parent loses custody of their children. In several instances (ex. Craig Scarbury of Illinois), judges have used atheism as a justification of removing custody of children from parents during divorce preceding—the religious parent is given custody over the child, regardless of the other factors, based entirely upon their religion. This situation is analogous to a Jewish parent losing custody because the judge of the case supports the Christian parent, yet there is comparably little outcry when the victim of this discrimination is an atheist.
A great many Americans misunderstand the idea of the separation of church and state. The misunderstandings surrounding this separation have opened the door to religious zealots imposing their religion over civil society. Religion is not a shield which allows individuals to ignore the law, nor is it a protected religious practice for an individual to impose their religion over others. Put plainly, until a vast majority of Americans understand the separation of church and state better, we will continue to see politicians attempt to perform end-runs around the 1st Amendment.