Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State
The basic Baptist belief in soul freedom leads naturally to the support of religious
freedom. God has granted freedom of conscience to every human being. The state
protects that freedom by providing religious liberty.
But throughout most of human history, nations tended to have a state religion which all
citizens were expected to endorse. Many nations still do – the Catholic Church in Italy
and many South American countries, the Anglican Church in England, the Lutheran
Church in Germany, for example. And it is the same with Hinduism in India and
Buddhism in South Korea and Islam in Arabia.
Freedom of religion was a novel idea in the 1600’s and 1700’s, when the new
world was being discovered and settled. The idea prevailed in the United States because
of advocates for it like the Baptists. It took legislative form in the constitutional doctrine
of the separation of church and state, expressed in the U.S. Bill of Rights as: “Congress
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
It was not an easy accomplishment. Baptist witnesses for freedom were whipped
and imprisoned. Our forebears forged their experiences of religious persecution into an
understanding of religious freedom, for all religious beliefs and expressions. The concept
of separation of church and state is often misunderstood, especially by adherents of the
majority religion, who are tempted to apply “majority rule” over protection of the
minority and expect government to protect Christianity. So even today, protectors of
separation of church and state are often criticized or ridiculed.
Religious liberty for all follows naturally from the commitment to soul freedom. Baptists
believe that decisions about faith and one’s relationship with God are up to the
individual, not the state. We have found that the church can maintain its purpose and
integrity best if it exists free from government interference, whether supportive or hostile.
Religious liberty protects people from the imposition of a particular religion and protects
the free exercise of any religion, or of none.
Conflict between religious belief and government power arose early in the history of
Christianity. Chapters 3-5 of the book of Acts tells of the conflict and is summarized
Not long after the day of Pentecost, Peter and John were preaching about Christ
and healed a crippled beggar. They were thrown into jail overnight, then brought before
the ruling council to give account. Peter outlined the story of Christ and his resurrection
and claimed that it was Christ’s power that healed the crippled man. The authorities were
fearful their message would spread, so ordered them to never preach or heal in Jesus’
name again. Peter and John replied, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you
rather than God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have
seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)
Before long, the apostles were back in jail. This time an angel set them free.
Their jailers looked for them the next morning and found the cell empty, though still
locked. Then they found out Peter and John were preaching in the temple yet again. This
time, the council demanded they explain their defiance. Peter said simply, “We must
obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)
Application of the scripture. Answer the following questions:
1. Who are the “authorities” in your life?
2. In what ways do you obey them?
3. What are some situations in the world today, or in your school, in which it might
be necessary for you, as a Christian, to obey God rather than human authority?
Religion and School: Write TRUE or FALSE following each question
1. Prayer is permitted in public schools
2. Groups of students may meet for prayer and Bible study in schools.
3. Teachers and other school officials may not lead in prayer at school functions.
4. Schools may not sponsor a baccalaureate service led by community clergy as part
of graduation activities.
5. The meaning of Easter and Christmas may be taught in classes.
6. Students have a right to write about their personal religious views in papers and
7. Students may distribute religious literature at school.
8. Student religious clubs may advertise their meetings in the same way non
religious clubs in the school do.
9. Students may wear T-shirts with religious messages and other religious attire.
10. Public schools may not teach a theory of creation based in Genesis as part of their
Each of the above statements is true, within certain parameters.
Students may pray, alone or in groups. Teachers and school administrators, when
acting in their official capacities, may not pray or include prayer in an official meeting,
such as a graduation ceremony.
Religious groups may organize religious meetings, such as a graduation
baccalaureate service, and may rent space on a school campus, if the school rents to
The same rules that apply to other organizations, school clubs, distribution of
literature, and attire such as T-shirts apply to religious organizations, clubs, literature, and
Public schools may teach about religion, but may not teach religion; they may
teach about religious holidays, but may not observe the holidays as religious events. In
comparative religion or social studies classes, schools may teach religious explanations of
life on earth, but in science class, they may present only scientific critiques of the origin
of life (some school districts are legally challenging this by requiring that creationism be
taught in science classes).
Select one of the following questions and respond to it. For the one your select, give
your reasons why it should be permitted, or why not:
Should public prayer be allowed at school gatherings?
Should teachers be permitted to participate in a religious club?
Should Christmas be celebrated because it is such a popular holiday?
Should the creation story in Genesis be taught in science class as an alternative
explanation of the origin of the world?
There is not a clear right and wrong position on the questions, for applying the principle
of separation of church and state must balance the right to practice one’s religion with the
right of others to practice theirs, or even to choose to NOT practice religion of any kind.
Even small changes in circumstances can make the balance shift. Simply apply your best
understanding at this time to the question.