History Behind the Establishment Clause

Prior to the American Revolution, the English parliament designated the Anglican Church as the official church of the England and the American colonies. The church was supported by taxation, and English citizens were required to attend services. No marriage or baptism was sanctioned outside the church. Religious minorities who failed to abide by the strictures of the church were forced to endure civil and criminal penalties, including banishment and death. Some American colonies were also ruled by theocrats, such as the Puritans in Massachusetts.

The English and colonial experiences influenced the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson supported a high “wall of separation” between church and state and opposed religious interference with the affairs of government. Madison, conversely, opposed governmental interference with matters of religion. For Madison, the establishment of a national church differed from the Spanish Inquisition only in degree, and he vociferously attacked any legislation that would have led in this direction. For example, Madison fought against a Virginia bill that would have levied taxes to subsidize Christianity.

The Founding Fathers’ concerns about the relationship between church and state found expression in the First Amendment. Despite the unequivocal nature of its language, the Supreme Court has never interpreted the First Amendment as an absolute prohibition against all laws concerning religious institutions, religious symbols, or the exercise of religious faith. Instead, the Court has turned for guidance to the thoughts and intentions of the Founding Fathers when interpreting the First Amendment, in particular the thoughts and intentions of its primary architect, James Madison.

But Madison’s views have not produced a uniform understanding of religious freedom among the Supreme Court’s justices. Some justices, for example, have cited Madison’s opposition to the Virginia bill subsidizing Christianity as evidence that he opposed only discriminatory governmental assistance to particular religious denominations but favored non-preferential aid to cultivate a diversity in faiths. Thus, the Framers of the First Amendment left posterity with three considerations regarding religious establishments: (1) a wall of separation that protects government from religion and religion from government; (2) a separation of church and state that permits non-discriminatory governmental assistance to religious groups; and (3) governmental assistance that preserves and promotes a diversity of religious beliefs.


Inside History Behind the Establishment Clause