The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Article VI, Section III

The No Religious Test Ban Clause (Separation clause)


When the wording of the new constitution began to be published and read by the public, a conflict arose over what many perceived as a rejection of religion. They saw the no religious test clause and the lack of any references to God, Jesus, Christianity, etc. as dangerous, a threat to what many felt was a necessary union between government and religion.

Researched and edited by Jim Allison

As correctly pointed out by Justice Joseph Story in his Commentaries (see below) that clause broke any union between church and state (it separated church and state).

Section 1841. The remaining part of the clause declares, that "no religious test shall ever be required, as a" qualification to any office or public trust, under the "United States." This clause is not introduced merely for the purpose of satisfying the scruples of many respectable persons, who feel an invincible repugnance to any religious test, or affirmation. It had a higher object; to cut off forever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government. The framers of the constitution were fully sensible of the dangers from this source, marked out in the history of other ages and countries; and not wholly unknown to our own. They knew, that bigotry was unceasingly vigilant in its stratagems, to secure to itself an exclusive ascendancy over the human mind; and that intolerance was ever ready to arm itself with all the terrors of the civil power to exterminate those, who doubted its dogmas, or resisted its infallibility. The Catholic and the Protestant had alternately waged the most ferocious and unrelenting warfare on each other; and Protestantism itself, at the very moment, that it was proclaiming the right of private judgment, prescribed boundaries to that right, beyond which if any one dared to pass, he must seal his rashness with the blood of martyrdom. (1) The history of the Parent country, too, could not fail to instruct them in the uses, and the abuses of religious tests. They there found the pains and penalties of non-conformity written in no equivocal language, and enforced with a stern and vindictive jealousy. One hardly knows, how to repress the sentiments of strong indignation, in reading the cool vindication of the laws of England on this Subject, (now, happily, for the most part abolished by recent enactments,) by Mr. Justice Blackstone, a man, in many respects distinguished for habitual moderation, and a deep sense of justice. "The second species," says he "of' non-conformists, are those, who offend through a mistaken or perverse zeal. Such were esteemed by our laws, enacted since the time of the reformation, to be papists, and protestant dissenters; both of which were supposed to be equally schismatics in not communicating with the national church; with this difference, that the papists divided from it upon material, though erroneous, reasons; but many of the dissenters, upon matters of indifference, or, in other words, upon no reason at all. Yet certainly our ancestors were mistaken in their plans of compulsion and intolerance. The sin of schism, as such, is by no means the object of temporal coercion and punishment. If, through weakness of intellect, through misdirected piety, through perverseness and acerbity of temper, or, (which is often the case,) through a prospect of secular advantage is herding with a party, men quarrel with the ecclesiastical establishment, the civil magistrate has nothing to do with it; unless their tenets and practice are such, as threaten ruin or disturbance to the state. He is bound, indeed, to protect the established church; and, if this can be better effected, by admitting none but its genuine members to offices of trust and emolument, he is certainly at liberty so to do; the disposal of offices being matter of favour and discretion.

"But, this point being once secured, all persecution for diversity of opinions, however ridiculous or absurd they may be, is contrary to every principle of sound policy and civil freedom. The names and subordination of the clergy, the posture of devotion, the materials and colour of the minister's garment, the joining in a known, or an unknown form of prayer, and other matters of the same kind, must be left to the option of every man's private judgment."(2)


(1) See 4 Black. Comm. 44, 53, and the Ante, Vol I 53

(2) 4 Black. Comm. 52, 53.

Source of Material:

Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States by Joseph Story, Vol III, Page 705-707. De Capo Press Reprints in American Constitutional and Legal History series, Da Capo Press NY 19700. Joseph Story's Commentaries . . . were originally published in January 1833)

The following are excerpts from James E. Wood, Jr.'s very fine article that appeared in the Journal of Church and State 29 (Spring 1987), which sums this up quite nicely.

The only reference to religion in the original Constitution, Article VI is written in the form of an unequivocal denial of any place to be given to religious considerations in determining qualifications for public office. The prohibition applied at this time, of course only to federal office, not state or local. The adoption of this proposal in effect, precluded the possibility of any church-state union or the establishment of a state church in the absence of any religious test for public office.

Source of Information:

James E. Wood, Jr., " 'No Religious Test Shall Ever Be Required': Reflections on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution," Journal of Church and State 29 (Spring 1987): 200).

. . . . . . .

The adoption of the ban on religious tests by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was historically without precedent. For centuries, some form of religious belief, at least in a Supreme Being, or some formal religious affiliation, had been a well-established requisite for holding public office throughout the world. Even John Locke, of all political philosophers perhaps the one who most influenced Thomas Jefferson and the American Founding Fathers, particularly James Madison, in his Letter Concerning Toleration denied the right of public office to atheists and Catholics. "Those are not at all to be tolerated," Locke wrote, "who deny the being of God."

Source of Information:

James E. Wood, Jr., " 'No Religious Test Shall Ever Be Required': Reflections on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution," Journal of Church and State 29 (Spring 1987): 201.

. . . . . . .

Banning religious tests went far beyond Locke.

. . . . . . .

The elimination of religious tests for public office by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 represented a major achievement for the future course of American church-state relations. Article VI not only removed the basis for any preferential treatment of one religion over another for holding public office, but also denied the right of any preferential status of religion over nonreligion in matters of one's political participation in the life of the Republic. William Lee Miller appropriately noted in his recent historical review of religion and the Constitution, The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic, that "in the framing of Article VI ...the new nation was electing to be nonreligious in its civil life." On the subject of religion, Miller finds "more striking than what the Federal Constitution did include is what it did not." Unlike other legal documents of the period and throughout history, there art no references in the Constitution to the Deity, to God, to "Providence." or even to the Creator, as in the case of the Declaration of Independence, which, unlike the Constitution, was not a formal legal document.

The prohibition of any religious test for public office came not only out of a religious pluralism that was rampant at the time of the nation's founding, but also out of the concept of the new Republic as a secular state. The very exclusion of any religious test for office was itself a profound acknowledgment of the secular character of the new Republic, to use Miller's phrase, "to be nonreligious in its civil life."

The secular state, by its very nature, is a limited state in which the people have denied the jurisdiction of civil authority over religious affairs. The secular state is not born out of hostility to religion, any more than Article VI, as noted earlier, is to be viewed as adverse to religion. In the words of America's most distinguished church historian of the nineteenth century, Philip Schaff, the Constitution is neither hostile nor friendly to any religion; it is simply silent on the subject, as lying beyond the jurisdiction of the general government."

As a secular state, America is a nation in which neither religion nor irreligion enjoys any official status and where no church or religion is to enjoy any advantages or to suffer any disadvantages because of an establishment of religion. Religious identity is made irrelevant to one's rights of citizenship, e.g., the right to vote and to hold public office. One's religion or irreligion may not be made the basis of political privilege or discrimination. At a time when there is a resurgence of the notion of a "Christian America" in the body politic, the Bicentennial of the Constitution is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the meaning and significance of church and state in American public life. In doing so, proper attention needs to be given to the importance of Article VI in America's body politic and nationhood. In recent years, the growing tendency of candidates for public office to stress their religious credentials, to use religion to serve their own political purposes, and to use political means for the advancement of religious interests needs to be seen in the context of America as a secular state--"to be nonreligious in its civil life."

Source of Information:

Editorial "No Religious test Shall Ever Be Required: Reflections on the Bicentennial of the U. S. Constitution", James E, Wood, Jr. Journal of Church and State 29, Spring. 1987, Number 2 pp 206-207.

Continue to Part II

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