America’s founding fathers greatly valued freedom of religion and strove to protect those whose religion was different than the majority. In developing a framework as to how this would be done, they used the concept of separation of church and state. In Thomas Jefferson’s letter to a Baptist Association, he explained the concept as such:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” (Jefferson, Thomas (1802-01-01). “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists”. U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2006-11-31)
The way to protect individual freedoms, just like installing home alarms, was to also protect government from the influences of religion. There are, however, many places where Christian religion has been on prominent display – from statues on government property to praying before government meetings…so what gives? How does this show separation of church and state?
WHAT THE LAW SAYS?
The First Amendment to the Constitution establishes the relationship between religion and government. In it, government is prevented from establishing a national religion and is limited in participation in religious activity. The Supreme Court has made numerous rulings requiring public officials to be neutral in their treatment and for schools to not show favoritism, hostility, or sponsorship of one religion over another. At the same time, however, a school or government entity also has the responsibility to protect religious activity that is stated by an individual. A quick summary of the application would say that while a government representative may not lead religious activities (prayer, scripture readings, etc.), compel others to participate, or encourage one religion over another, they also may not stop someone from starting a religious activity.
Looking at this in terms of a public education facility, individuals, including students and teachers, are permitted to participate in religious sacraments during non instructional or break times. Similarly, religious groups or clubs before or after school/work, but on government property, are permissible.
Some public institutions have used ‘moments of silence’ in place of prayer in response to grave situations. These are also protected as long as individuals are not encouraged or discouraged from prayer during the time.
In summary, neutral stances on religious issues are by far the safest routes to take. If specific contexts are being considered, it would be worthwhile to consult the institution’s attorney. For instance, how to handle the accommodation of religious obligations can be tricky. In Islam, prayer is required at certain times of day, wherever the follower may be. This could potentially include work, school, or public spaces. As it is the government’s duty to protect religious freedom, but also to not favor one religion over another, how to work with the individual should be fair and balanced. Other situations can include public prayer at significant events such as institutional ceremonies. An attorney can help to navigate the laws and cases that have occurred and help to make sure the event is framed correctly to protect the separation between church and state.