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Relationship between Religion and Government


The government and religion should not be related at all as an individual’s religious choices are personal and should have nothing to do with the state’ actions. The paper shall look at the basis of this argument through examples.

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The relationship that should exist between religion and government

In order to illustrate why these two entities i.e. government and religion should be separate; it is critical to look at some court rulings, laws and opinions expressed by the public. For instance the Danbury Baptist Association sent a letter to President Jefferson concerning the distinction between the government and religion. This Association felt that all individuals have a right to enjoy religious liberty; however, they added that religion is a private affair that should be treated as the sole prerogative of a citizen. Consequently, the state has no right to make laws that coerce a person to maintain a certain religious stance or to abandon his previously chosen faith.

The latter sentiments are as true today as they were in 1801 when the letter was written. If members of a religious group like Danbury Baptist can acknowledge this very fact then the general public should be under the obligation to do the same. In fact religious privileges should be treated as such i.e. as privileges and not exclusive rights as asserted by the Baptist Association. The reasons given by the latter group for such a contradictory position was that many governments before have tried to garner more power under the veil of religion. It is therefore more sensible if the laws of the land are left to be the only determinants of order. At the time when Thomas Jefferson responded to this letter, he concurred with their sentiments. When one looks at the reasons the former President gives for taking up such a stance, one can see the logic behind it. Jefferson asserted that there should be a firm separation between church and state because it is impossible to set standards based on opinions but quite plausible to do so based on the actions of people. Given the sensibility of these assertions, it is clear why there should be a sharp distinction between religion and state and that no law should appear to either endorse or prohibit exercise of one’s religious beliefs. (Junto Society par 6)

In the late twentieth century, the Supreme Court dealt with a case that was regarded by many as being highly controversial but is insightful in strengthening the case for separation of religion and government; it was the case of Reynolds vs. United States of America, (1878). The defendant had been accused of engaging in bigamy which is a crime punishable by a fine and imprisonment for marrying two wives. This individual was a member of the Church of Mormons and asserted that he was merely practicing his religious obligations by engaging in polygamy. There were two contradictory laws that were argued in this case, the first was the section 5352 of Utah’s statutes which states that all persons who marry someone while still being wives or husbands are guilty of bigamy. The second law was the First Amendment law which states that all people have the freedom to exercise their religion. It was held that criminal activity occurring inside or outside a religious setting should be acknowledged as such and that the law cannot protect every single religious practice merely because defendants claim that it was acceptable through their religious standards. (Supreme Court a, par 14)

Many people have supported this court decision and it is my firm opinion that the court was doing the right thing. The US has a diverse set of religious beliefs with some choosing to carry out unconventional practices. If the law becomes lenient towards any religious practice merely because it may not want to infringe First Amendment rights, then this would open the floodgates to so many other cases where defendants may rush to the umbrella of religion as their defense. In the end, even insincere people may get away with crime thus leading to utter chaos within our society.

Another case that is also critical in this debate is the Employment Division of Oregon vs. Smith (1990) case. Two counselors working for a counseling program had been terminated from employment and denied any benefits after their employer found out that they were taking peyote which is an addictive substance. The employers claimed that these actions were in violation of their agreement which had stated that they were obliged not to take any addictive substances. On the other hand, the defenders claimed that being members of the Native American Church automatically disqualified them from such an agreement because this was part of their religious practice. There were two arguments that created the controversy in the case; the first was that the defendant had a right to receive compensation because the state could not interfere in their right to refuse engaging in certain conduct because of their religion. On the other hand, it can be argued because the conduct was prohibited by the law then it would not be justifiable to reward it. The Supreme Court of Oregon held that the employers were right in denying the defendants employment befits. (Spreme Court b, par 20)

It can be easily understand why the Court arrived at such a ruling because it is difficult to break the law (the first amendment rights) when punishing wrong doers if it has been found that the prohibition of a religious practice is not an intended effect but an incidental occurrence as a result of a general provision. If the law was to make exception for religious individuals in every case that did not coincide with their practices then this could cause a state of anarchy in the country owing to the fact that the state would be permitting individuals to become laws/ lawmakers in themselves. One can therefore see why religion and the government should not be intertwined as this would lead to contradictions, confusion and chaos in society.

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It should be noted that the clause of free exercise within the constitution should only be regarded as applicable when it is aimed at non specific behaviors. However, in instances where the issue under analysis is related to religion, then it is crucial to combine the free exercise clause with another law on rights so as to make a defendant’s rights valid. The United States is a democratic government and if the law becomes strict towards certain groups while letting others do as they please, then chances are that religious liberty may take precedence over the rule of law. This is the price that religious groups have to pay for overstepping their boundaries and it would be unfair to let a minority group change the country’s understanding of law as we know it just so that they can continue practicing a certain element of their faith.

Another case that is of interest to this debate is the Lying vs. Northwest Indian case of 1988. In the case, the US forest service wanted to construct a road in a piece of land where Native Americans frequently carried out their religious rituals. This Department asserted that it surveyed other possible sites and found that the most economical and viable place was the land under dispute. On the other hand, the Native Americans claimed that land in itself is very sacred in their religion. Aside from that, they asserted that the piece under dispute was of particular interest to them because it was holy site which offered them power. (Supreme Court c, 44)

The court held that the Forestry service had a right to build that road owing to the economical and social benefits that it would bring along with it. One can see that the latter ruling is quite sensible since the decision was not designed to hinder Native Americans from carrying out their practices (they could do so if they pleased in another location) but the effect of this law was incidental in leading to such an effect. The free exercise law on practicing one’s religion was not prohibited at all by this law because the Native Americans were not coerced to change their practices. Also, it happened that the land under dispute was a forest and this made it public or government property. Consequently, the Native Americans were stepping outside their obligations by telling the government to do what they wanted with land that was not theirs. This means that granting them their wish would be giving them veto power; no religious rights can cause the state to forego its rights as this is simply insensible. (Alley, 202)


As it can be seen from all the latter cases, there is a tendency for the courts to give consideration to other rights and precedence than religious ones. Upon analysis, it can easily be understood why this is so. The US is a nation with numerous beliefs and values, giving precedence to one group in instances where other people’s rights have been infringed or where crimes have been committed could lead to perpetual use of religion as a defense tool. This would cause gridlock and bring the country to a state of anarchy. In other words, religion and the government should be separate and the law should take precedence in cases where these two entities clash. As a democratic nation, this is the price that must be paid by religious groups that step outside the constitution’s stipulations.


Junto Society. Danbury Baptist Association (1801) On the Separation of church and state. 2002. Web.

Supreme Court (b). Employment Division vs. Smith (1990). Web.

Supreme Court (c). Lying vs. Northeast Indian (1988) Web.

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Alley, Robert. Leading court cases on the state and the church. New York: Prometheus, 1999.

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