Separation of Church and State: A Juxtaposition of the United States and France

The separation of church and state is historically a heavily debated topic within the US Legal System. The concept is protected under the first amendment of the US Constitution, stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. Nevertheless, the idea of separation has come under heavy scrutiny in the wake of newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s hearing and confirmation. Comparatively, in France, a secular country in both its values and laws, core values of freedom of belief are not being upheld due to secular legislation. These current events offer a new discussion point as we work to improve our nation: some level of separation should be maintained, but how much is too much?

The confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett comes just weeks after the death of the notorious Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. President Trump’s religious views have been overtly clear over the course of the past four years, which leaves many Americans concerned with the views of his most recent Supreme Court appointment. With an even stronger conservative majority in the Supreme Court, many now worry that Barrett, a devout Catholic, will be the deciding factor in the overturn of landmark cases such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, which allowed for abortion and marriage equality respectively. In regards to these cases specifically, many are concerned that Barrett’s legal decisions will be based on personal religious beliefs. With the security of influential cases on the line, a call for the continuation of secular ideals presented in the Constitution is being made. 

France offers a strong example of a secular nation. France’s secularism began with the end of the French Revolution. With the end of the monarchy, France was no longer considered to be “The Eldest Daughter of the Church”, and the milestone paved the way for new secular reform. The Jules Ferry laws of 1882 established free, mandatory, and secular education in France, a precedent still upheld today. French secularism was legally secured in 1905 with The Law on Separation of Church and State, which allowed religion within the private sector and established secularism within the public sphere. The law was the first to uphold the unique concept of laïcité, which establishes secularism as defined by the freedom of conscience and belief or non-belief. Controversially, in 2004, religious manifestation through insignia or dress was banned in public schools, and in 2010, the concealment of one’s face or head in public was banned, which included head coverings such as burqas and hijabs. While French secularism was originally based around the freedom of belief, 2010’s prohibition directly outlaws a crucial piece of the Muslim faith. Despite its secular identity, France is still burdened by religious-based attacks. Over the past few weeks, various attacks have occurred, and have been mainly perpetrated by out of country Muslim extremists. Not only is France’s secular nature discriminatory, but these attacks have also intensified the pressure on French Muslims. While the idea of laïcité may be in good hopes, parts of it are clearly not in the best interest of French citizens. While France’s secularism intends to allow for more freedom of belief, current events show that it provides a gateway for religious discrimination. 

A move to a more secular United States is gaining stronger support after Justice Barrett’s confirmation on October 26th. The belief is that with more emphasis on secularism there will be less room for judgment based solely on religious views and an overall more inclusive government system. Taking this into consideration, we should look at France as a decisive example of the effects true secularism can have. While its core beliefs may be set in freedoms, new legislation is proving to be discriminatory against already pressured Muslims. How can we as modern people ensure a level of secularism that both ensures freedom of conscience and belief and maintains separation of church and state at a non-discriminatory level?