At crucial points when the church-state wall was most threatened in America, people rose up to defend it. Some of these names may not be familiar today, or they may be known for other achievements. All contributed to shoring up the wall of separation.
Here are five unsung heroes of church-state separation:
1. Charles Pinckney: It was difficult to be a religious dissenter in colonial America. Prejudice ran rampant. Many state constitutions limited public office to Christians or even certain types of Christians, such as “Trinitarian Protestants.” Such “religious tests” were seen as a way of ensuring that the men who held public office were of sound morals.
After the Revolution, when the federal Constitution was being drafted, a delegate from South Carolina named Charles Pinckney decided that there should be no such religious qualifications for federal office. He added a line to the end of Article VI – a provision that makes it clear that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and that judges and elected representatives are bound to follow it – that read, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
An aristocrat and something of a dandy, the 30-year-old Pinckney relied on old-fashioned political maneuvering to get his way. When he introduced the “no religious test” proposal to the convention, it was shuttled off to a committee, which ignored it. Undaunted, Pinckney brought the proposal up again on the full floor. The measure was seconded by Gouverneur Morris and adopted by the entire convention “by a very great majority,” as one member put it.
But the new Constitution had to be approved by the states, and here Pinckney’s handiwork sparked some controversy. Delegates in North Carolina seemed especially offended by the passage in Article VI. One lawmaker fulminated about the possibility of “pagans, deists and Mahometans” seeking office.
James Madison leaped to the defense of Pinckney’s handiwork in the Federalist Papers, calling it one of the highlights of the proposed constitution. The provision remained intact. Although it was limited to federal office, the provision no doubt inspired the Supreme Court when in 1961 it struck down religious tests at the state level in the case Torcaso v. Watkins. Today a handful of states retain provisions in their constitutions barring atheists from holding public office, but they are dead letters and may not be enforced.
2. Joel Barlow: During the early years of the American republic, U.S. ships traveling near north Africa were frequently attacked by pirates operating out of Algiers and Tripoli. Many American sailors were kidnapped and held for ransom. The pirates, who were Muslim, often taunted the sailors for their Christian beliefs.
An American diplomat, Joel Barlow, attempted to find a non-military solution to the problem. Barlow worked for a number of years on a treaty designed to bring peace between the United States and the rogue states of north Africa.
The document that emerged, the Treaty of Tripoli, was negotiated primarily during the presidency of George Washington but was not forwarded to the Senate until John Adams was in office. It contains a provision, Article 11, stating bluntly, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Barlow, who was known for his advocacy of secular government, forwarded the treaty to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, who endorsed it and sent it on to Adams. Adams, in turn, sent it to the Senate, which ratified the document. At no point during this process did anyone apparently raise objections to Article 11.
The “no Christian nation” language in the treaty is strong evidence that early American leaders did not view the country that way. It helps handily debunk the Religious Right’s assertions that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.”
3. Gulian C. Verplanck: The year was 1832, and a cholera epidemic was ravaging the countryside. Doctors at the time where helpless, as there was no reliable treatment against the dreaded disease. As bodies piled up, Congress decided to appeal for divine intervention, and a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer was proposed.
President Andrew Jackson was skeptical. Asked if he would issue such a proclamation, Jackson said no. Advising people to pray, Jackson asserted, fell outside of his job description.
“I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president; and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government," Jackson wrote in a letter to a religious group.
But Congress would not give up. Prodded by Sen. Henry Clay, the Senate passed the proclamation anyway. It looked like it would sail through the House of Representatives as well, until an unprepossessing man with the unlikely name of Gulian C. Verplanck stepped up to the speaker's podium on July 9.
In measured tones, Verplanck explained exactly why government-sponsored prayer is offensive.
"[I]t seems to me clear that whenever Congress or any other political body in this country meddles in affairs of religion, they must run counter more or less to the spirit of our free institutions, securing equal religious rights," Verplanck asserted. "In this land, where every man’s faith is protected, and no man’s faith is preferred, even a resolution or a proclamation for a fast from the civil authority may offend the consciences or wound the feelings of some or the other of our citizens.”
Verplanck’s colleagues were swayed by his powerful rhetoric: The proclamation died in the House.
So Verplanck was some kind of radical secularist, right? Not quite. Before serving in Congress, he was a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.
4. Ulysses S. Grant: U.S. Grant is best known for being a hard fighting (and hard drinking) Civil War general and later a scandal-plagued president. His advocacy of church-state separation is less well known.
Grant had his share of problems during his presidency, but on the issue of church-state separation he showed true leadership. Sadly, this tends to get overlooked today.
During Grant’s presidency, the concept of tax-supported public education began to slowly spread across the nation. More and more states were adopting laws establishing public schools and even mandating attendance. But there was a problem: People could not agree on what role religion should play in the schools.
In 1844, there were riots in Philadelphia between Catholics and Protestants over what version of the Bible would be read in schools. Tensions simmered for years. Protestants insisted that since they were the majority in the country, the schools should reflect their theology. Catholics fumed that their rights were being violated and proposed that the federal government give them money to start their own schools that would inculcate Catholicism.
Grant had a better idea: No tax money for religious schools and no religious worship in the public schools. Keeping public schools secular, Grant proposed, would be in the best interests of the nation.
On Sept. 30, 1875, Grant addressed a gathering of former Union soldiers. He could have played it safe and offered some reminisces about the war. Instead, he decided to address the school issue.
“Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the security of free thought, free speech, a free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men irrespective of nationality, color or religion,” Grant said. “Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar, appropriated for their support, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian schools. Resolve that neither the state nor nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”
Grant was ahead of his time. While some state courts adopted his vision and struck down laws mandating school prayer in the latter half of the 19th century, the U.S. Supreme Court did not declare official school prayer a violation of the First Amendment until 1962.
5. Ellery Schempp: The First Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom aren’t self-executing. Oftentimes, people have to go to court to claim their rights.
One guy who went to court was a high school student in suburban Philadelphia named Ellery Schempp. In the late 1950s, Schempp protested – to no avail – over his high school’s policy of reciting the Lord’s Prayer and reading from the King James Version of the Bible every morning. Schempp pointed out that his family was Unitarian and didn’t appreciate the school pushing Protestant Christianity on them.
When it became obvious that school officials weren’t going to stop, Schempp tried another tactic: One day, he told his teacher he would like to read along with the daily Bible verse. The teacher was pleased, figuring that Ellery had finally had a change of heart. He was less pleased when Ellery began reading from the Quran and even angrier when the young man refused to stand for the Lord’s Prayer. He sent Ellery to the principal’s office.
That night, Schempp dashed off a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU took his case, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark ruling, the high court declared in 1963’s Abington Township School District v. Schempp decision that public schools may not impose prayer and Bible reading on students. (Students, however, retain the right to pray and read religious texts on their own in a non-disruptive fashion.)
Schempp’s case sparked a backlash. The school principal branded him a troublemaker and actually wrote a letter to Tufts University, where Schempp had been accepted, urging officials to deny him admission. (Tufts ignored the letter.) The family was inundated with hostile mail and postcards calling them communists.
There was political fallout as well. More than 100 school prayer amendments were introduced in Congress. Hearings were held on one proposal in 1966, but it floundered. Amendments have been reintroduced sporadically since then.
Schempp went on to earn a Ph.D. at Brown University and work as an engineer. Now retired, he has remained active in the cause of church-state separation and often gives talks about his case, which has been cited hundreds of time by federal courts and has had a profound impact on the law relating to religion in public schools. (Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Schempp ruling.)
The history of church-state separation features a lot of larger-than-life figures. We should celebrate their contributions. But we shouldn’t overlook the hard work done by a lot of less well-known people, each of whom added some important bricks to the church-state wall.
Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.