You can’t separate church and state

Religion can have positive impacts on personal life, but as soon as it starts influencing policy, its reach has crossed a line. 

Lara Tinawi
Thu, Jun 29, 2023

The Michigan Daily

One hundred and thirty-two years of editorial freedom

Moving to the United States from Syria at a young age came with a drastic change in lifestyle, demographics and culture. Having only spent pre-K in Syria, my education has been all-American. From an early age, I learned about the Great Lakes, American history and politics. As I learned about my rights and the basic functions of our government, one concept always stood out to me because I didn’t understand it: the separation of church and state. 

The separation of church and state is a term that stems from the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” When learning about the Establishment Clause, it was emphasized that the primary purpose was to create religious freedom and prohibit a state-mandated religion. 

What I didn’t understand then was how we talked about the “separation of church and state” while saying we were “one nation under God” each morning. The same thought crossed my mind while I watched government officials be sworn in on religious books. Where did we draw the line between religion and government? 

According to the United States Federal Courts, the government can only interfere in religious matters when the purpose is secular, does not promote or inhibit religion and there is no excessive entanglement between church and state. These ambiguous terms, like much of our Constitution, have been used to the advantage of the courts, leaving it up to them to decide what instances the government can or cannot interfere. 

While the courts and government claim they continue to uphold the precedent of separation between church and state, there is no denying the influential role of religion on American culture and society, which in turn impacts government policy. 

Due to the majority of the U.S. population reporting as Christian since the nation’s founding, there is a deep religious history that plays an important role in the proceedings of the country. Christmas Day is the only religiously affiliated federal holiday celebrated in the United States, solidifying Christmas as essential to American culture.

As a non-Christian, I have no issues with the presence of religion in society because I know it is an important part of life for many people, and I respect those who choose to display their faith in a manner that does not personally affect me. It used to frustrate me when school breaks always conveniently fell on Christian holidays, while I celebrated Eid with a test or piles of homework. But, when the majority of students follow that religion, I can understand public schools wanting to avoid large amounts of students skipping class on religious holidays. However, it must be acknowledged that public schools are an extension of the government, and the church and state are at least somewhat entwined. Religion can have positive impacts on personal life, but as soon as it starts influencing policy, its reach has crossed a line. 

Though Christianity in the U.S. is declining, the lines between church and state have become increasingly blurry. Recently, two U.S. Supreme Court case rulings have gained attention in the media for their implications on the relationships between church and state. In Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing school vouchers to pay for religious-based private schools. These vouchers are given by the state government to pay for student tuition, board and travel to neighboring private and public schools when their localities do not have schools. In many states, religious schools are not permitted to accept vouchers, but the Supreme Court has overturned this precedent. 

The main issue that stems from this ruling is the new precedent that religiously affiliated institutions can receive government funding, further blurring the lines between church and state. I fully support students receiving the best education available to them, and sometimes private schools, even those religiously affiliated, can provide better quality of education. This ruling, though, connects religion and government through money, and in a capitalist nation, money is where most power lies.

The second recent Supreme Court ruling that has had an influential role in this relationship is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, regarding a football coach’s prayers held after games. The Supreme Court ruled that Coach Joseph Kennedy was within his constitutional rights to pray in private on the football field, and that teachers can pray in a private capacity. Many responses to this ruling suggested that the Supreme Court ruled that teachers could lead students in prayer, but the wording of the decision suggests that teachers leading students in prayer while in school is inappropriate. However, considering Coach Kennedy’s private prayers were delivered loudly at the 50-yard line, surrounded by students, the private nature of these prayers can be called into question.

The Supreme Court’s rulings on these two cases within a year of each other have changed the relationship between church and state, further entwining the two despite the nation’s founding principles separating them. It does not affect me if a football coach chooses to pray with his students, or students go to religious private schools, but rulings directly involving church and state could create detrimental precedents that will negatively affect large groups of people, especially those who are not Christian. 

I have had first-hand experience with the animosity and Islamophobia many Muslims regularly experience in the United States. Muslims are more likely than any other major religious group to say they have experienced religious discrimination. There are no laws that can enforce the way people think about others, and I have long known and accepted this, using the separation of church and state and freedom of religion as hope that there will be nothing prohibiting me from practicing the way I please. 

But I have witnessed the building of a mosque in my neighborhood take years to be approved, and required to change its design to remove the minarets and domed roof, so that it looked less Muslim. I experienced hatred when the Muslim travel ban was enacted, and I feared for my Syrian relatives. The ban was upheld in the Supreme Court, in the Trump v. Hawaii case, a further example of the government playing a role in religion and state perception. 

Because many people establish their morals and beliefs from the religions and communities they are raised in, it would be unreasonable to ask policymakers not to consider religion when crafting legislation., But when precedent and policy is created with religion in mind, it poses a danger to those who do not practice the majority of the population’s religion. Religion can be used as a foundation for a person’s beliefs, but not the law that governs the nation. 

Many proponents of abortion bans have monopolized arguments based on religion, most commonly Christianity. There are others who use their freedom of religion to enforce that abortion cannot be banned because their religion permits it, such as in Islam and Judaism. The dangers of mixing church and state are already having consequences on laws that affect large groups of people based on their religion. When arguments in the name of the Christian faith are used to create policy and precedent that will affect non-Christians, the rights and beliefs of minorities are trampled over. 

Religion is fundamental for many people, and it is unreasonable to ask that people erase their morals and beliefs when it comes to everyday proceedings. There will always be a relationship between the government and religion, even if it is not obvious. This relationship, however, cannot and should not become too heavily entwined and influential on policy. 

Still, it should not become too separated either, where religion is tampered down in the name of secularism. As a French minor, I’ve studied and watched France, claiming to completely separate church and state, create laws removing obvious Muslim presence in the public eye all for “laïcité.” We should not separate church and state to the extent France has, but we also cannot be ruled under one religion. Religion will always play a role in our lives, but the government cannot and should not determine how. 

Lara Tinawi is an Opinion Columnist writing about campus culture and her everyday musings. She can be reached at

Please consider donating to The Michigan Daily

Stanford Lipsey Student Publications Building 420 Maynard St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Edited and managed by the students at the University of Michigan since 1890