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June 17, 1948

Recent decisions of the Supreme Court have extended the meaning of the constitutional prohibition of an establishment of religion so that any action by the state that is intended to benefit all religious bodies without discrimination is forbidden. This development of the conception of separation of church and state seems to us to be unwarranted by the language of the First Amendment and to bring about a situation in which forms of cooperation between church and state that have been taken for granted by the American people will be endangered. We believe that, whatever its intention may be, this hardening of the idea of “separation” by the Court will greatly accelerate the trend toward the secularization of our culture. We favor the separation of church and state in the sense which we believe to have been intended in the First Amendment. This prohibited the state from giving any church or religious body a favored position, and from controlling the religious institutions of the nation. We contend that Jefferson’s oft-quoted words, “wall of separation,” which are not in the Constitution but which are used by the Court in the interpretation of the Constitution, are a misleading metaphor. Cooperation, entered into freely by the state and church and involving no special privilege to any church and no threat to the religious liberty of any citizen, should be permitted. As Protestants we desire to affirm this interpretation of the American doctrine of separation of church and state, and to protest against the interpretation that has been formulated by the Supreme Court.

The situation created by these decisions of our highest Court makes clear that it is important for our great religious communions, without obscuring their differences of faith and policy, to explore the possibilities of working together. Only as we realize such possibilities shall we succeed in maintaining the religious foundations of our national life.


Bishop James C. Baker, Mr. Eugene E. Barnett Professor, John Coleman Bennett, Mr. John Crosby Brown Professor Robert L. Calhoun, Rt. Rev. Angus Dun, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Dr. Charles W. Gilkey, Dr. Douglas Horton, Professor Walter M. Horton, Dr. Lynn Harold Hough, Dr. Henry Smith Leiper, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Bishop Francis J. McConnell, Mr. Francis P. Miller, Professor H. Richard Niebuhr, Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, Professor Justin Wroe Nixon, Mr. Andrew H. Phelps, Professor Liston Pope, Rt. Rev. Edward L. Parsons, Rt. Rev. William Scarlett, Professor H. Shelton Smith, President Henry P. Van Dusen, Mr. Charles T. White

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash. Image cropped.