What does the phrase “separation of church and state” mean?

It means church and state, as far as possible, are to be separate. The framers of the Constitution did not intend absolute separation. Indeed, complete separation is impossible and undesirable. The “wall of separation” concept is nothing more than a metaphor to the Supreme Court. It has nothing to do with mixing religion and politics. Religion and politics have always intersected in America. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment means government may not establish a national church, it may not favor one faith over another, and it may not favor or inhibit religion as such.

Has the Supreme Court interpreted the Establishment Clause to mean something the framers of the Constitution did not intend?

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan has said it is not a question of “either/or”—either the text of the Constitution or its contemporary interpretation. Instead, Brennan said, it is “both/and.” You begin with the text, but you have to interpret it to fit the ever-changing legal situation in our time. This understanding of the Supreme Court’s role is time honored. In 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in Marbury v. Madison: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”

Why has this issue become so controversial, pitting the U.S. attorney general against several Supreme Court justices?

Society has changed in 200 years. When the Constitution was written, the new nation harbored scarcely a dozen religious groups. Today, the United States protects the rights of some 3,000 religious bodies. As a result, the application of the First Amendment’s religion clauses needs to be dynamic rather than static. The framers of the Constitution ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.