The Bill of Rights' separation of church and state came after the American colonies had over 150 years of experience of church mixed with government. That separation was not accidental, and the current disagreements are not “pointless fights over trivial causes” as one editorial claims
All the colonies had government supported, or established, churches. Royal charters for English colonies required government support for the Church of England. With the Puritans, the Congregational Church and government were so entangled that the same persons were leaders of both.
Some colonies had additional religious requirements for voting, holding public office or even residence, but it was government support that “established” their churches.
Government support continued even after 1776, when the colonies became states and wrote their own constitutions and bills of rights. However, opposition was growing from Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and other denominations.
An important development came in 1785 in Virginia. Its assembly was debating whether to continue state support of a religious teacher. James Madison opposed it and wrote his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.
In it, Madison argued that every man has a right to his own religious beliefs. He wrote of religion in general and argued that mixing government and religion was bad for religion and bad for government.
The assembly defeated the support proposal and the following year passed Jefferson's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. A key provision of the act was “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever.”
After several states demanded a national bill of rights as a condition for approving the proposed 1787 Constitution, Madison was on the committee that drafted the proposals that Congress and the states adopted.
The religious clause in the First Amendment was concise and precise: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Clearly, this prohibited government support and assured freedom for religion in general, not “a” religion. With the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, this applied also to state and local governments.
The Supreme Court itself has further supported this meaning. In 1947, in Everson v. Board of Education, where the dispute was over the purpose of bus fare for students, both the majority decision and the dissenting justices agreed on the meaning the First Amendment.
The briefest of the statements was that “the First Amendment broadly forbids state support, financial or other, for religion in any guise, form or degree. It outlaws all use of public funds for religious purposes.”
So, how has this affected religion in the United States? Without government support, its churches are more focused, better attended and more vibrant than churches in countries where government support removes the need for members' involvement.
However, in recent years, some groups have tried to receive a form of government support by pushing religious displays and activities into government buildings, onto government property, into government-sponsored events and even into the workings of government itself.
This has led to the controversies over the Ten Commandments in courthouses, prayers at official public school events and even the teaching of religious-based creationism and intelligent design in science classes. (Indiana's Attorney General Zoeller recognizes the uncertain legality of religious invocations for government sessions.)
Maybe persons pushing religion into government areas do not understand the First Amendment or do not agree with it. The response has to be to question each situation to determine whether it has a religious purpose or puts the government in a position of supporting a specific religion or religion in general.
This should include questioning some practices that have become traditional.
The meaning of the First Amendment is crystal clear: Everyone is free to practice a personal choice of religion but must not expect or demand governmental support. The application of that amendment requires vigilance.