The Separation of church and state reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Separation of church and state

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The separation of church and state is a concept in law whereby the structures of state or national government are kept separate from those of religious institutions. The concept has long been a topic of political debate. Its opponents are usually called theocrats, and in places where there is an established church or state religion, their political position is sometimes called antidisestablishmentarianism.

The separation of church and state is related to freedom of religion, but the two concepts are different and one should not infer hastily that countries with a state church do not necessarily have freedom of religion, nor should one infer that a country without a state church necessarily enjoys freedom of religion.

Table of contents
1 Motivations
2 Secularism and theocracy
3 Enactment
4 Countries with stable separation
5 Countries with stable state churches
6 Countries in flux
7 Advocacy
8 External links


There are a number of proposed reasons to support a separation of church and state:

Secularism and theocracy

A commonly advocated position is that the government should be a secular institution; that is, have no state religion, have no legislation that outlaws or favors one religion over another, and have no religiously motivated regulations on the eligibility of the nation's politicians. A secular state has no power over the nation's churches and the nation's churches have no political powers over the members of the government. A related notion is the French laïcité.

Many Western democratic nations place a high importance of the separation of church and state. Some nations, such as the United States of America and Canada, even have specific clauses in their constitutions which are widely interpreted as forbidding the government from favoring one religion over another.

Other democracies, such as Argentina or the United Kingdom, have a distinction between church and state which is slightly more blurred. These nations have a constitutionally established State religion, but are inclusive of citizens of other faiths.

In countries like these, the head of government or head of state may be legally required to be a member of a given faith. Powers to appoint high-ranking members of the state churches are also often still vested in the worldly governments. These powers may be slightly anachronistic or superficial, however, and disguise the true level of religious freedom the nation possesses.

Secularists generally do not hold that the state must be atheist — that is, opposed to religion. However, traditionalist religious critics of secularism often consider secularism to be a departure from tradition in the direction of atheism. Those who believe that the state has religious obligations, or that it must be informed by religious values, often regard secularism as atheism.

The opposite end of the spectrum from secularism is a theocracy, in which a religion controls the government, and the rule of law is closely linked with the interpretation of a religious texts such as the Bible or the Koran. A few outright theocracies exist today, such as the Vatican or Iran, in which politics is either completely run by religious authorities or run only with its explicit consent. Arguably a few other nations in the Middle East have political policies which are often directly dictated or strongly influenced by religious leaders.

Many religions, such as Catholicism and Islam, hold that one must not separate Church and State. The Catholic Church's 1983 Canon Law proclaims that "Christ's faithful are to strive to secure that in the civil society the laws which regulate the formation of the young also provide a religious and moral education in the schools that is in accord with the conscience of the parents." [1]

Islam holds that all political life must exist within Islamic law. There is a contemporary debate in Islam whether obedience to God is ultimately compatible with the Western secular pattern, which separates religion from civic life, as opposed to Islamic ideals of toleration.

At the same time, some religions appear to advocate such separation. For example, many Christians, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, interpret Biblical passages such as Christ's admonition to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" as a warning not to be involved in civil governments. One common theme among such religions is that the world and the government are hopelessly corrupt and that religious involvement in government would corrupt the religion more than it would save society.


Separation of church and state occurs in different ways:

Some countries of the world have a stable separation between church and state, while other countries are in a state of political unrest over the separation. The 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State started considerable controversy and even riots.

Separation of Church and State is a notion related to, but separate from, freedom of religion. There are many countries with an official religion, such as the United Kingdom or Belgium, where freedom of religion is guaranteed. Conversely, it is possible for a country not to have an official religion, or a set of official religions, yet to discriminate against atheists or members of religions outside of the mainstream. For instance, while the United States does not officially advance any particular religion, proponents of atheism were persecuted in many US jurisdictions in the 19th century.

There are different interpretations of the notion of separation of Church and State:

For instance, France is legally prohibited from funding religious activities (except for Alsace-Moselle and military chaplains), but funds some private religious schools for their non-religious activities as long as they apply the national curriculum and don't discriminate on grounds of religion; yet religious motivations are usually kept out of the political process. On the other hand, in the United States such funding would be questionable at best (although in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers were constitutional), but religious beliefs are often cited by leading public figures as justification for public policy.

Countries with stable separation

Different countries have different approaches to the separation of church and state.


Since 1905, France has had a law requiring separation of church and state, prohibiting the state from recognizing or funding any religion. According to the French constitution, freedom of religion was already a constitutional right. The 1905 law was highly controversial at the time. France adheres to the notion of laïcité, that is, noninterference of the government into the religious sphere and non interference of religion into government, and a strict neutrality of government in religious affairs.

References to religious beliefs to justify public policies is considered a political faux pas, since it is widely believed that religious beliefs should be kept out of the public sphere.

Public tax money supports some church-affiliated schools, but they must agree to follow the same curriculum as the public schools and are prohibited from forcing students to attend religion courses or to discriminate against students on the basis of religion.

Churches, synagogues, temples and cathedrals built before 1905, at the taxpayers' expense, are now the property of the state and the communes; however they may be gratuitously used for religious activities provided this religious use stays continuous in time. Some argue that this is a form of unfair subsidy for the established religions in comparison to Islam.

The Alsace-Moselle area, which was administered by Germany at the time the 1905 law was passed and was returned to France only after World War I, is still under the pre-1905 regime established of the Concordat, which provides for the public subsidy of the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church and the Jewish Religion as well as public education in those religions. An original trait of this area is that priests are paid by the state; the bishops are named by the President on the proposal of the Pope. Controversy erupts periodically on the appropriateness of these and other extraordinary legal dispositions of Alsace-Moselle.

See also: laïcité


In Germany, church and state are declared by law to be separate, but some large churches can get special status from the state as a "corporation under public law" which allows the churches to levy taxes against the members of the church in return for a collection fee paid to the state. Most public schools give religious instruction; its teachers are educated at public universities under some church supervision. Parents, or students 14 years old and above, can decide not to take those religion classes, but most federal states then demand that classes in "ethics" or "philosophy" be taken instead. The Federal Administrative Court recently ruled that the Berlin Islamic Federation was a qualified religious community; hence, the Berlin State Government decided to begin Islamic religious instruction in public schools in areas with significant Islamic populations. There was considerable public controversy when the Federal Constitutional Court declared a Bavarian law requiring a crucifix in every classroom to be uncostitutional in 1999; Bavaria replaced it with a law still demanding the same, unless parents file a formal protest with the state. Germany continues to determine which religions merit federal protection; a significant (but ebbing) controversy remains over the German government's denial of this protection to the Church of Scientology. [1]


The church and state were partially separated in 1999. The Church of Sweden still maintains special status. It is now possible to register new religious organizations, but they lack the same special status and the ability to perform services such as marriage and burials.

United States of America

The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.James Madison.

In the 1600s and 1700s, many Europeans immigrated to the United States. The primary reason for many was the desire to worship freely in their own fashion. These included a large number of nonconformists such as the Puritans and the Pilgrims as well as English Catholics. However, with some exceptions, such as Roger Williams of Rhode Island, most of these groups did not believe in religious toleration and in some cases came to America with the explicit aim of setting up a theocratic state.

Today, most Americans hold the separation of Church and State to be one of their nation's key political values. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly bans Congress from making a law to establish an official state religion for the United States, and according to various constitutional scholars also indicates that the US Government cannot perform any action or make any policy which blatantly favors one faith or church over another, or even favors belief over non-belief. Constitutional interpretation and political reality often vary, however.

See also: Separation of church and state in the United States

However, contrary to practice in some other countries, the United States does not excise all religious expression from politics and government. US currency carries the "In God we trust" motto; Congress begins its sessions with a prayer; the Pledge of Allegiance refers to God; and politicians often make references to faith as a foundation of political decisions. Such political and governmental expressions of religious belief are usually interpreted as being Judeo-Christian in nature.

In this regard it is often stated that while the US has a separation of Church and State, it is not a separation of government and religion.


The Canadian view on Church and State is largely similar to the view in the United States. Unlike the US however, the Canadian constitution acknowleges that Canada is founded "under the supremacy of God."

As well, Canadian religious schools in certain provinces receive government funding, despite their exclusive nature.

Canada also observes the British Monarch as its head of state, an office which is deeply religious in nature (see United Kingdom, below).


By passing through the numerous phases of colonial occupation, the relationship of the church and state in the Philippines has repeatedly changed from the collaboration of the Roman Catholic Church with the government during the Spanish era to the generally accepted separation today.

See also: Separation of church and state in the Philippines

Recent events

For current reports on the status of the church and state in the Philippines, check the International Religious Freedom Report 2002 by the U.S. Department of State.

Other countries

The status of the separation of church and state in almost any country around the world can be viewed by clicking on the appropriate geographical region in the left panel of the Web page maintained by the United States Department of State.

Countries with stable state churches


The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Finnish Orthodox Church have a status protected by law. Both churches have the right to levy an income tax on their members and corporations run by their members, and the tax is collected by the state. The administration of the state churches is regulated by their respective church laws, which are drafted by the churches and enacted by the parliament. State universities provide training for the clergy of the state churches. The general direction has been to restrict and remove the privileges of the state churches, and as of 2004, in most other official business (such as officiating marriages) any registered religious community has a status comparable to that of the state churches.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, there are two state-approved churches. The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian while the Church of England is Anglican. The former is a national church guaranteed by law to be separate from the state, while the latter is a state-established church and any major changes to doctrine, liturgy or structure must have parliamentary approval. Neither Wales nor Northern Ireland currently have established churches: the Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920; the Church of Ireland in 1871. The king or queen must promise to uphold the rights of the Presbyterian church in Scotland and the Anglican church in England. He or she is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England but an ordinary member of the Church of Scotland. Neither church receives direct funding from taxation. State schools must provide religious instruction and regular religious ceremonies, though parents may withdraw their children from either; the choice of religion left up to the school governors, but in the absence of an explicit choice it is by default "broadly Christian"; the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church operate many state-funded schools and there are a small number of Jewish and Muslim ones. Senior Church of England bishops have a right to sit in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Countries in flux


From the foundation of the Kievan Rus dynasty to the institution of bolshevism, Russia under the old regime maintained very close ties between the officially recognized religion and the government. These bonds became tightest under tsar Peter I ("Peter the Great"), when the office of Patriarch of Moscow was eliminated in 1721 and replaced with a "Holy Governing Synod", presided over by Imperial appointee and regulated by Imperial law. From that point until 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church was explicitly a department of the Russian government.

After the October Revolution and bolshevik coup, the government of the old Soviet Union actually was quite active in religious affairs, even though it was theoretically atheist and purely secular. Between 1917 and 1922, Soviet authorities executed 28 Orthodox Bishops and over 1,000 priests. In 1922, a government-sponsored "renovation" known as the Living Church was instigated in May of 1922 as a replacement for the Russian Orthodox Church. It was eliminated in 1943 during the Second World War, but state intervention in religious affairs did not end, and religion was highly regulated and controlled until the end of the Soviet Union.

On October 9 and November 10 of 1990, the Russian Parliament passed two freedom of conscience laws that formally disestablished the Russian Orthodox Church as the state church of Russia (this step had never actually been explicitly taken in the Soviet Union). However, in 1997 The Russian Parliament passed a law restricting the activities of religious organizations within Russia. Complete freedom is given to any religious organization officially recognized by the Soviet government before 1985: the Orthodox Church, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. All other religions are strictly limited in that they are not permitted to operate schools or import non-Russian citizens to act as missionaries or clergy. Likewise, they must annually re-register with local officials.

This act has been sharply criticized as antithetical to the freedom of religion, especially in countries with religious organizations that expend a great deal of money and effort in proselytizing. However, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (Greek Orthodox) had the following to offer in interpretation:

Many Protestant missionaries from the West whose voices were not heard during the decades of oppression have come not to lend support, but to convert Orthodox believers. These so-called missionaries claim to be Christians, but they behave as wolves in sheep's clothing.
New York Times, Oct. 25, 1997)


Believers for separation

Many religious believers, including Jews, Christians and Muslims, want the separation of church and state to protect their religion from other religions.

Thomas Jefferson justified the separation of church and state based on his religious belief that "Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either . . . ." [1]

Since the 5th century, the Coptic Church has advocated separation of church and state.

Believers against separation

Those who wish to continue with an existing established church take a position described as antidisestablishmentarianism.

Many religious believers, usually fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, believe that their God should guide and direct the state; they hold that there should be no separation between Church and State. However, religious believers cannot agree on whose God or gods, and which interpretation thereof, should be demanded.

A reverse view is that the state should provide a default religion for the large number of citizens who which to identify themselves as religious believers without actively choosing between the various alternatives. A slightly more extreme version of this is that the state should determine (or at least have the power to determine) the doctrine and structure of the state religion - this is the position in England. There need not be obligation on individuals to follow the state in religion is such cases.

Some religious believers hold that one can have a sort of intermediate position, in which a general belief in God and the Bible should be upheld by the state, but not the beliefs of any one specific church. This school of thought holds that religion is a fundamental and essential part of many moral and ethical values, and that the removal of public displays of religion from government is a form of religious discrimination, in that it prohibits them from exercising their religious views in a forum of government. These groups also object to the idea that holy writings, such as the Bible and the Qur'an, are not used as the foundation of the law.

Several religious groups are heavily involved with politics. Some, such as the Christian Coalition, have publicly stated their intent to abolish the separation of church and state, and introduce their own religious views and agenda into the lawmaking process.

Many religious people in America believe that prayer in the schools will improve the morals of American children, and they maintain that the Supreme Court's banning of prayer from the schools does not protect religion but rather harms religion. "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. " [1] These religious groups do not consider the Supreme Court's ban on teacher-led prayer to be legitimate but rather a distortion of constitutional language and history.

Secular for Separation

Some non-believers want the legal separation of church and state to keep superstition out of government. For example, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers believe that it would be a bad idea for government to be controlled by a religion.

When fundamentalists attempted to force biology teachers to teach the Genesis creation story if they taught evolution, the Supreme Court ruled that labeling a religious doctrine as "science" was insufficient to allow it to be taught to a child in public school for the purpose of converting the child to a religion. [1]

Also, religious texts such as the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed in public buildings for the purpose of converting people to a religion. That is, religious people cannot display religious symbols on public property with the purpose of advocating their religion. There are still many exceptions to the general rule. [1]

Secular against Separation

Some non-believers, like Charles Maurras, thought that the influence of the Catholic Church was necessary for the continuation of their country and their political objectives.

External links

World views on separation

American court battles over separation

American activism over separation