Where is "separation of church and state" in the Constitution?

The First Amendment's religion clauses state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The Establishment Clause forbids more than the establishment of a national religion; it also forbids laws or actions respecting an establishment of religion. As James Madison, Father of the Constitution, put it “The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.” In a January 1, 1802 letter, President Thomas Jefferson wrote of the intended relationship between religion and government: “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 prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

The Establishment Clause sets up a line of demarcation between religion and government in our society, and the Supreme Court determines where the line is drawn to accommodate liberties in our ever-changing society. Although the exact language is absent, the Supreme Court has repeatedly determined that the Constitution does indeed call for separation between church and state.

Jefferson's “wall of separation between church and state” was first noted by the Supreme Court in an 1878 opinion by Chief Justice Morrison Waite. Justice Hugo Black later reaffirmed the wall's significance in the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Black wrote “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.'” The wall forbids government to actually or effectively favor one religion over another, favor religion over non-religion and vice-versa. Requiring neutrality removes the authority of government from religious practice and protects each citizen's right to express his or her personal beliefs.


Doesn't the First Amendment only apply to the federal government?

Not anymore. When the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, it was clearly intended to apply only to the federal government. However, ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 set the course for applying the Bill of Rights to the states. The amendment reads in part “…No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….” In 1940, in a case called Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment's Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses must be applied to the states. Since that time, all government action “respecting an establishment of religion,” whether at the federal, state or local level, is subject to review under the U.S. Constitution.


Does Americans United get involved in elections?

As a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, Americans United may not intervene in partisan politics. AU has been critical of religious groups that violate the letter and spirit of federal tax laws, so we are careful to make sure we are always in compliance with them ourselves. We refrain from making any statements supporting or opposing any candidate or party, including publishing voter guides about candidate stances on church-state issues.


Who are your members and how are you funded? Do you accept any government funding?

Americans United is a national organization with members in all 50 states. We are headquartered in Washington, D.C., and led by the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director. AU has more than 120,000 members and supporters from all over the country. They include people from all walks of life and from various faith communities, as well as those who profess no particular faith. We are funded by donations from our members and others who support church-state separation. We do not seek, nor would we accept, government funding.


Does Americans United oppose religion?

No. Americans United does not take positions on theological questions and does not oppose any group because of its religious beliefs. AU works to defend the free exercise of all religions as protected by the Constitution; and we oppose any effort to use government power to force anyone to support, take part in or fund religion.

We do oppose efforts by the Religious Right to impose its theological views on the public by governmental action. The Religious Right's attempt to force all Americans to accept its religious doctrines as law is one of the greatest threats to religious freedom today.


Is Americans United affiliated with any other group?

No. Americans United is an independent organization. We have no formal ties to any other organization, although we often work in concert with like-minded religious, educational, civic and public policy groups to achieve common goals. AU is non-partisan and has no ties to any political party.