Happy Separation of Church & State Week!

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Photo by Desmond Hester on Unsplash)

Separation of Church and State Week is observed annually during the week of Thanksgiving. It’s the secular movement’s response to National Bible Week, which kicks off with International Day of the Bible on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the first National Bible Week in 1941. Since then, each president has been granted the status of honorary chairman of National Bible Week to issue a message from the White House. (Incidentally, Barack Obama got into hot water in 2010 for seeming to ignore that duty, instead hosting a Ramadan banquet at the White House). During World War II, the National Bible Association read passages on the air between radio broadcasts to share the “comforting words of the Bible” and help people unite around their sacred text.

However, Americans ought to be uniting over the US Constitution and working to better understand it, rather than continuing to believe the misconception that we live in a Christian nation. The Constitution’s First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Our nation’s founders were very deliberate in their decision to draft an explicitly secular Constitution so that true religious freedom would not be hampered and sullied with involvement by the government. (In that vein, Religious Freedom Day is observed each year on January 16.)

In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association sent January 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, in part,

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, and 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. [emphasis added]

The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center works to provide the courtroom advocacy that humanists and others need to effectively defend constitutional rights and strengthen Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state. We tirelessly fight against the encroachment of religion in public institutions that impacts our schools, our workplaces, government funding decisions, housing, healthcare, adoption, marriage, prisons, and more. Our legal team responds to countless reports of violations in which government actors assume or pretend that all the constituents they serve are Christian or at least believe in a god. Here are some examples:

  • Public school graduations, which should be welcoming occasions for students of all religions or none, have been held in churches and include Christian prayer.
  • Government meetings ostracize religious minorities or nonreligious community members. County Commissioners, who should work to create a welcoming environment for all, instead deliver overtly sectarian prayers.
  • Government memorials don’t represent all lives lost, just a Christian majority.
  • Correctional institutions have prevented incarcerated humanists from exercising their rights to assemble and to be afforded the same privileges as their Christian counterparts.

The AHA understands that it is incumbent on us to work zealously not just this week but all year round to defend the Constitution and work toward true equality for all faiths and none. Not only are Americans breaking away from religious traditions, but a recently published Pew survey found that 63 percent of US adults say religious leaders should stay out of politics.

American United for the Separation of Church and State conducted a 2019 poll that found Americans overwhelmingly support the separation of church and state. In fact, “sixty percent of poll respondents said protecting the separation of religion and government is either one of the most important things to them personally or very important.”

“The poll, conducted in July for Americans United by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, one of the nation’s most respected and most accurate polling firms, surveyed 2,002 self-identified likely 2020 voters,” Rob Boston explains in AU’s Church & State Magazine. “To ensure an accurate cross-section of voters, a mix of respondents from various racial, age and religious groups were included, and poll questions were offered in English and Spanish.”

Join us in celebrating Separation of Church and State Week by spreading the word that people of all faiths and none must be treated equally under the law and no religion can be established or preferred by the government or its agents. You can: