The separation of church and state is a concept that has been misinterpreted and blown out of proportion more times than it’s possible to keep track of. It defines the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation state. Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It includes this excerpt:
“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.” 
He’s explaining that the Bill of Rights impedes the establishment of a national church, in turn, preventing the government from interfering with a person’s right to expression of religion by means of supporting one religion over others. After all, this is the reason English pilgrims came to America in the first place. Nicknamed separatists because their religious practices didn’t conform to those of the Church of England, they sailed to America so that they could be free to practice their own religion without fear of persecution or discrimination. In fact, there was a time when America was likely the most accepting as well as diverse nation in terms of religion. People from all over the world fled to America seeking religious liberty. The early colonies were populated by Dutch Calvinists, English Puritans, English Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, French Huguenots, German and Swedish Lutherans, as well as Mennonites, Jews, and Amish from various European countries. Thomas Jefferson was adamant about supporting and maintaining the separation of church and state to ensure that each citizen felt welcome and protected by our society, regardless of who they chose to pray to.
Over time, the phrase has been so widely used and interpreted that it’s lost some of its salt. The separation of church and state is also tied to more broad religious freedoms such as being able to practice whatever religion you choose in the way you see fit. The United States was founded on biblical principles, most of which serve our country well and support the values of most American citizens, christian or not. However, we cannot claim to be upholding the values of the First Amendment while our laws still solely reflect the values of one religion.
In addition, having legal freedoms yet being oppressed by the general societal stance isn’t true freedom. For example, muslims are legally permitted to practice their religion in America as they see fit but after the Twin Tower attacks on 9/11, animosity towards Muslim Americans has skyrocketed. One in four Muslims either knows someone who has or have personally experienced an act of anti-muslim discrimination, harassment, verbal abuse or physical attack since 9/11.
American citizens are being misinformed about the reality of the situation. This extreme instance of widespread prejudice has blinded us to the truth about the groups involved, resulting in their abuse and our ignorance. Because of the censorship in schools on what pertaining to religion can and can’t be taught, a lot of the details we learn about the 9/11 attacks comes from outside and often biased sources and so forms our own opinions on what actually happened. This is the reason we need to properly educate people on as many religions as possible. Religion is incredibly controversial and a lot of the friction could most likely be reduced if more people truly understood what they were arguing about.
This education needs to start early, in our middle and elementary schools. Far too often, children grow up with convictions they adopted from their parents. Their beliefs aren’t even their own but if they heard it from their parents it has to be right..right? Sadly, that’s not always true but no one has the right to tell them that.
This is why it’s so important to foster an environment conducive to their progress in making these discoveries and decisions for themselves. We have complete control over how we view the world but depending on the lens we use, what filters through will be vastly different. By properly educating our citizens about different religions and cultural practices, we’re giving them a better opportunity to make informed decisions about how they interact with others.
While I truly believe in this concept, there are far too many rigid restrictions for this to flow smoothly. When the separation of church and state policy was adopted by the United States, it prevented one problems but started another. With the way the policy is currently being enforced, teaching students in public schools about religious practices becomes very difficult because the government can’t be seen throwing support behind a religious movement. This also prohibits the government from providing any funding or support to a private school, especially those with a religious affiliation.
However, there is a loophole. Separation of church and state prevents government funded schools from teaching religion so in 2000, the public school district in Modesto, California began teaching about religion. The World Religions program is heavily regulated and monitored. Each class receives the same textbooks, study guides, visual aids, and lesson plan as every other class in the district. As long as the instructors aren’t giving more attention or support to one religion over others, the plan works and has worked brilliantly.
A group of researchers from the First Amendment Center has been following the program since its inception. The team admitted they were unsure of what their investigation would conclude. Students enrolled in the program were interviewed before, during and immediately after the course ended and then again six months later. They found that the student body involved became far more tolerant of other religions and cultural practices and even more likely to stand up for them and protect the religious rights of others. Students themselves said that the course had broadened their views and prepared them to fight back against faith based bullying. 
Perhaps the biggest concern of parents in the district is that it would weaken the faith of children who were raised with a religious background. Contrary to expectations, this increased tolerance resulted in no change in the faiths of students. Students who entered the program with religious convictions ended the course with the same convictions. 
With religion and religious beliefs being such a controversial topic, particularly in America, we need to take great strides as individuals and as a nation to mold our country and communities into those that cultivate and reflect the diversity growing within them. Diversity should not divide us. It should better prepare us to face controversy and handle it fairly and with an open mind.
- “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury BaptistsThe Final Letter, as Sent.” Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (June 1998). N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
- Kilman, Carrie. “One Nation, Many Gods.” Teaching Tolerance. N.p., 2007. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.