The Misunderstood Line of Separation of Church and State

“I won’t talk about my faith at work due to separation of church and state.”

“I keep my faith to myself while at work, because I don’t want to cross that line.”

Faculty, staff, and students who are employed in public colleges and universities often say such things. While I deeply respect their desire to abide by the law, I have learned that in many cases their understanding of the law is flawed.

Many who work at public colleges and universities are confused about their religious expression rights on campus. 

So, some remain unnecessarily silent about their faith while at work.

Much of their confusion is based on a misunderstanding of the phrase “separation of church and state” – a phrase that seems to regularly find its way into discussions of religion among employees in public higher education. Related to that sentiment is the idea of inappropriately “crossing the line” – referring to the “line” separating church and state.

Some have misinterpreted the phrase “separation of church and state” to mean that they are not allowed to talk about their faith in the workplace at all.

While people of other religious identities might be hesitant to express their faith in the workplace, Christians seem to be most likely to frame their reluctance in this way.

Let me clarify the meaning of the oft-repeated phrase.

Thomas Jefferson actually penned the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1801 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. His intent was to advocate for religious liberty that is free from governmental tampering, not to suggest that governmental agencies should be free from religious expression.

Thomas Jefferson suggested that the state should be kept out of the church – not vice versa.

In a previous blog post, I shared reasons why we should support the freedom of religious expression for all in higher education. In that post, I made brief comments about that constitutional right but did not take the time to thoroughly unpack it. Given the misunderstanding surrounding this important topic, some clarification is needed.

The First Amendment provisions related to religious expression in public higher education institutions are summed up in two clauses: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”

This is the establishment clause.

It means that public colleges and universities cannot advocate for one religion over another, nor should they advocate for religion over non-religion. They must strive to maintain religious neutrality.

This clause does not mean that we must all keep silent about our religious beliefs. Employees who talk about their faith at work are not “establishing” a religion on campus as described in the First Amendment.

That said, when we find ourselves in conversations about religion while at work, it never hurts to state that our views are our own views – not those of the college or university at which we are employed.

Congress shall make no law. . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This is the free exercise clause.

It means that public colleges and universities are not allowed to create any policy that is designed to suppress the expression of religion on campus.

So, there is no hard-and-fast “line” that keeps those of us who work at public colleges and universities from talking about our faith at work.

However, because we are employees, there are some legal restrictions related to how and when we do so. Legal restrictions should not be our only consideration, though.

Those who are striving to follow Jesus in higher education should also consider biblical guidelines when thinking about sharing their faith at work.

For that reason, let me offer a few thoughts for consideration:

  1. Christians are called to obey God and to spread the message of Christianity.

There is not one place on earth where God does not want Christians to share their faith. By implication, our workplace is included in the “Go into all the world” directive.

As the late Dallas Willard so aptly stated, “If discipleship does not relate to your job, where you spend most of your time, you’ve left your life behind.”

  1. One way that Christians obey God is by submitting to the governing authorities.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” and that “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”

I believe that most of the opportunities that employees at public colleges and universities have to talk about their religious faith on campus can happen in ways that easily align with the directives of the “governing authorities” (e.g., the First Amendment and campus guidelines).

And, that is exactly what we should strive to do.

  1. There may be situations in which the biblical convictions held by Christians compel them to act in ways that challenge the directives of the governing authorities.

Recall that when Peter and John went before the Sanhedrin they were commanded not to speak or to teach in the name of Jesus. Clearly, they were placed in a situation where they had to decide whether or not to obey the governing authorities. To that command, they replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

And, there are a number of other examples in the Bible of people who were compelled, in certain situations, to obey God in ways that challenged the directives of the governing authorities. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are among them – as is Daniel.

So, while there is no hard-and-fast “line” of separation of church and state, we might find ourselves in situations at work where we feel compelled to share our faith, but we, or others, question the appropriateness of doing so.

In such situations, how should we decide when to talk about our faith and when to keep silent?

We should rely upon the wisdom and discernment that comes from the Holy Spirit.

And, we can remind ourselves that God will be with us and will give us the words to say as we speak when He leads us to do so. He will also be our defense if and when our zeal for others to know about the good news of Christ compels us to speak of Him in less-than-ideal situations at work.

As we walk in faithful obedience, we can trust Him.




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