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THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE

U.S. PUBLIC OPINION POLLS

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Overview:

There appear to be relatively few public opinion polls related to the principle of separation of church and state, compared to such hot button items as abortion access or equal rights to homosexuals. However, the Chief Justice Moore controversy over a Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Justice Building gave the topic a high profile in the late summer of 2003. This resulted in two formal polls, and a number of informal ones, which sampled public opinion on this topic. The latter are not included here because their results are so biased. They were typically taken on websites promoting conservative Christianity, the separation of church and state, or Agnosticism.

bullet2001-APR-10: Faith-based initiatives: A poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that:
bullet68% of American adults are concerned that faith-based programs might lead to too much government involvement with religion.
bullet60% are concerned that religious groups funded with public money would proselytize recipients of social services, as allowed in President Bush's faith-based initiative program.
bullet78% were opposed to another major component in Bush's proposal which would have allowed religious groups to discriminate in hiring staff by only hiring people who share their beliefs.
bulletMost approve in principle of government funding of social programs run by religious groups. 1
bullet2002-MAR-20: Church promotion of politicians: Present IRS regulations prohibit tax-exempt organizations, such as almost all churches, from endorsing candidates for public office. A poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that:
bullet70% of American adults believe that churches should not endorse politicians; 22% favored church involvement in political campaigns; 8% had no response.
bulletThe greatest support came from white evangelical Christians: 48% opposed endorsement; 41% favored it. 2
bullet2003-SEP-24: Ten Commandments poll: A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll was conducted during the week of SEP-24. Results were released on about AUG-28. It found that 77% of the 1,009 subjects polled disapproved of the decision by the U.S. District Court to have the Ten Commandments monument removed from the rotunda of the Alabama Justice Building. 3 The margin of error was approximately 3.2 percentage points. That is, if the poll were repeated twenty times, that nineteen results would be within 3.2 percentage points of 77%.
bullet2003-SEP-29: Church-state separation poll: A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll was conducted on SEP-19 to 21. Results were released on SEP-29. It was a time of heightened concern across the U.S. about church-state separation issues. In the preceding weeks there were many demonstrations concerning the Alabama monument.

Findings include:

Question Approve Disapprove No response; Don't know
The inscription "In God we Trust" on U.S. Coins. 90% 8% 2%
Non-denominational prayer at public school ceremonies. 78 21 1
Monument of the Ten Commandments in a public area. 70 29 1
Monument of the Qur'an in a public area 33 64 3
Federal funds for social programs run by Christian organizations 64 34 2
Federal funds for social programs run by Islamic organizations 41 56 3

The precise meaning of the term "non-denominational prayer" in the second question might have been unclear to some participants. Some might interpret the phrase as referring to a general theistic prayer to God that is acceptable to Baha'i's Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and other theists. Others might interpret it as referring to a generic Christian prayer that is acceptable to members of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations.

The precise meaning of the term "public area" may have also confused some participants. Some might interpret the term as referring to a government location, such as a federal, state or municipal park; a government office building, a public school, etc. Others might have interpreted it more generally to include any place where the public can freely gather, such as church grounds, private parks, sides of roads, etc. 4

bullet2004-AUG: U.S. Constitution question: ChristianWebSite.com conducted a poll of their visitors. This is a conservative Protestant web site and probably most of their visitors are Fundamentalist or other Evangelical Protestants. They asked the question: "Do you believe the US Constitution calls for separation of Church and State?" Response was:
bulletNo 88.7%
bulletYes: 11.2?

Unfortunately, the question is ambiguous:

bulletOne can interpret it literally. The text of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. To John Adams and some of the other framers of the document, that probably meant that the federal government would not select a single official state religion for the country. But they probably would have had no objection to the Ten Commandments being posted by itself in a court building or public school. For many decades, the courts interpreted the First Amendment as allowing a great deal of entanglement between church as state, such as religious instruction and prayers in public schools. So one could answer "No" with some confidence.
bulletHowever, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly interpreted the establishment clause as implying that a wall of separation must be maintained between church and state. So, the Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, does call for separation of church and state. One could answer "Yes" with confidence. 5

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References:

  1. "New Poll Shows Americans Oppose Religious Discrimination With Public Funds: Results Find Public Has Serious Reservations About Bush 'Faith-Based' Initiative, Says Americans United," Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 2001-APR-10, at: http://www.commondreams.org/
  2. "Americans don't want churches mixing religion with partisan politics, new poll shows," Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 2002-MAR-20, at: http://www.au.org/press/pr032002.htm
  3. "Ten Commandments monument moved: New poll says Americans disapprove of federal court order," CNN.com, 2003-AUG-28, at: http://www.cnn.com/

  4. Tony Perkins, "New Poll: Americans Support Christian Monuments," Family Research Council, at: http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=WU03I21

  5. The CWS poll is typically at the lower right corner of the ChristianWebSite.com web site at: http://www.christianwebsite.com/

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Copyright 2003 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-OCT-1
Latest update: 2005-MAY-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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