Separating church and state in higher education

Nefsa'Hyatt Brown, Editor-in-Chief

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






By definition, the separation of church and state is the principle that the government must maintain an attitude of neutrality towards religion. This concept is mandated under the establishment clause and free exercise clause of the First Amendment. This separation ensures that the government does not create laws that favor one religion over another or establish a national religion. Essentially, the separation of the two allows religion and politics to coexist without one affecting the other on a national scale.

In a perfect world, the church and state are completely separated, meaning that one does not affect the other at all. Religious institutions do not speak on behalf of or interfere with governmental institutions and vice versa. However, history tells us that is not the case. This is especially true in the Black community, where the Black church is a staple in our culture, bleeding into every part of our lives.

Upon my arrival, I immediately noticed how prevalent religion is at our university. From the invocation to the benediction of convocations and commencements alike, the idea of religion encompasses everything we do here, despite this being a public institution. As a political science major, I am fully aware that because we are a public institution funded by the Alabama legislature that we are technically an extension of a governmental institution. Knowing this, I am also aware that the interconnectedness of religion at my university could easily be seen as a problem even if no one views it as such.

Because my university is an HBCU, many of my peers come from semi-traditional black households. Despite the differences in our family dynamics, most of us grew up in the church. Many of us have had a clear understanding of religion and the importance of it; and, with that being said, the presence of religion is not uncomfortable to us. If anything, it is an aspect of our university that makes us feel at home.

However, as a college student who is embarking on her spiritual journey, the constant reminder that our university is built off of faith and relies on it is not as comforting as it used to be. If anything, it makes me uncomfortable. Now, a spiritual journey does not mean that I am denouncing everything I grew up believing, but it does mean that I am opening myself up to questioning it. That includes questioning why my university has allowed religion to become such a staple point in everything we do.

As a student leader, I have been asked on more than one occasion to attend a religious service. In spite of my spiritual journey, I am usually eager to go. Unfortunately, the majority of the times that I have gone representing my university I have had this sinking feeling that we were not there to simply represent the university and bond.

Instead, it became very clear to me from what I experienced at these various churches why the two should never be intertwined. Religion is a personal choice, and once it becomes intertwined with politics or any other institution connected to the state, such as education, the will to choose becomes non-existent. For example, if my university is having a mandatory campus-wide event, and the speaker is a pastor, then my free will to decide if I want to go or not is in question. Of course, no one is exactly forcing me to go to the event, but the repercussions of me choosing not to go create a sense of coercion.

On the other hand, another example could be within the church. If your pastor, who is seen as your spiritual guide, is encouraging that you vote for a particular candidate in a local election based on the fact that they financially support the church, then you are at risk of forfeiting your individual choice to choose who you want to vote for.

From both instances, there is a clear opportunity for both the church and state to benefit from one another through manipulation and coercion. There is also a sense of indoctrination and politicking involved in two places where they should not exist. More importantly, from a student’s perspective at a university that has very strict policies that require on-campus organizations to not support specific political campaigns, as we are a public university, it is unfortunate that they do not apply that same ideology to religion.

Despite my journey, I still very much believe in God. I also understand that for many religious people, their faith is an integral part of everything they do. But, I must also acknowledge when the two cannot co-exist and take steps to ensure that they don’t. It would be nice if my university and the other religious institutions I have attended, did the same.