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Separation of church

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And Jesus answering said unto them, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. – Mark 12:17

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . – First Amendment of the United States Constitution

Although the first statement was written in the Bible and the second is found in the Constitution, both highlight the same principle: separation of church and state.

Over the years, the concept of separation of church and state has ignited controversy with issues such as political involvement in religious affairs, prayer in public schools and, more recently, the use of taxpayer funds for private parochial schools.

Experts, both secular and in the faith community, say that separation of church and state has given America a sense of stability not found in countries that do not embrace such a principle.

“It kind of works both ways by allowing more freedom for government and more freedom for religion if they stay out of each other’s business,” said Philip Goff, executive director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

“Separation of church and state is simply the belief that the government should not state or control how people worship,” said Rev. Carey Grady, pastor of Bethel AME Church, the city’s oldest surviving predominantly African-American congregation.

In the United States, the separation of church and state, as a concept, can be traced to the development of the country’s Constitution and first laws.

Grady, who discussed separation of church and state while teaching classes at Richmond Community College, noted that the concept was important to America’s early leaders, who had disdain for the religious limitations found in Great Britain, where people were often forced to embrace the faith of its rulers.

“When people started leaving Europe to come to America for religious freedom, it was because you could be persecuted if you were not of the faith group of the person who headed the empire,” Grady noted. “The Founding Fathers felt that religion taught charity and responsibility, but they also believed that citizens should be able to choose whatever religion they wanted to be.”

Goff explained that two of the framers of the Constitution, including Thomas Jefferson, an agnostic who held a secular viewpoint, and Isaac Backus, a Baptist minister agreed that separation of church and state would be beneficial for all citizens.

Jefferson thought that since religion had caused so many wars in Europe, that if it was kept outside of government it was more likely to remain stable. Backus sought religious freedom for individuals and to prevent the government from telling citizens what they should believe.

“In the First Amendment, both concerns are addressed by separation of church and state,” Goff said. “Government can’t make a law establishing a religion, nor can it stop people from freely exercising their religion.”

However, since the First Amendment was enacted in 1791, the issue of separation of church and state has been revisited by federal and state courts numerous times, especially during the 20th century.

In Indiana, separation of church and state became a hot topic in 1943 when state officials began giving employees the day off for Good Friday, a holiday observed by many Christians that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus.

In 1999, a lawsuit challenged Indiana’s observance of Good Friday, saying that it improperly advances or promotes the Christian religion. However, the state Supreme Court and a panel of federal appeals judges upheld the state’s right to observe it, saying that Indiana does not celebrate the religious aspects of Good Friday.

“To Indiana, it is nothing but a Friday falling in the middle of the long vacation-less spring – a day which employees should take off to rejuvenate themselves,” the panel wrote in a statement.

Nationally and locally, the association of religion with political activism has also been a frequently discussed topic, with noted ministers such as Rev. Pat Robertson and Rev. Jesse Jackson running for president.

Locally, clergymen have occasionally held or run for public office. Two of the most prominent were Rev. William “Bill” Hudnut, who served four terms as mayor of Indianapolis after being pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, and the late Rev. James Cummings, who was pastor of Trinity CME Church while also serving on the Indianapolis City-County Council during the 1960s.

In 2011, ministers on both sides of the political aisle made well-publicized partisan endorsements of candidates for Indianapolis mayor.

Grady said ministers or churches working together and building political power has nothing to do with separation of church and state.

“Politics dictates how people’s needs are met and the purpose is to save souls for Christ and meet people’s needs,” Grady said. “How else are you going to meet their needs without being involved in the political process in some kind of way?”

Goff agreed, explaining that someone’s individual beliefs has not been of importance, but there is more concern over the threat of the institutions of church and state overlapping.

“For someone to be a minister or be a person of faith who runs for office, that’s usually fine,” Goff said. “It’s whether they want those institutions to overlap so that church could tell government what to do or vice versa, that is what people may find problematic.”

Goff noted, however, that one issue that brought separation of church and state to the forefront in Indiana recently is the debate over whether or not taxpayer resources should be used to fund vouchers for private schools, including those operated by religious institutions.

Currently, the state’s voucher program, approved by the Indiana Legislature last year, is designed to give poor and middle class families public funds to help pay for private school tuition.

In March, the state Supreme Court upheld the voucher program after it was challenged by those who say it violates separation of church and state and takes money from public schools.

“Many people think separation of church and state is one thing, when it is really something else. We need more education about what it is,” Grady said. “It has nothing to do with religious practices. It has to do with the government regulating what denomination or church people should be a part of.”

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