So where does this idea come from? Well, it refers to a statement made by Thomas Jefferson in a letter written in 1802, in reference to the First Amendment.
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."And while Jefferson believed in a solid separation between church and state, he was not talking about an all or nothing society which is what the statement is usually used to describe now. Instead he was referring to the laws which were already in place which limit the government's roll in religion by not allowing an "official religion" to be established or by stopping individuals from exercising their faith however they so wish. There is however, no mention of which religious observations, ornamentation or practices may or may not be carried out by government organisations or entities. What does this mean? It means that if Congress opens with a Christian Prayer each day, they are NOT violating any laws - even if there are non-Christians sitting among them... It also means government buildings - including schools, hospitals, offices, etc - have the right to display religious depictions or statements (such as the Judeo-Christian 10 Commandments) and do NOT have to include everyone... There have been additional laws, such as a ban on public school led prayer, which have created minor limits on these things, BUT, each of those laws are in addition to, not included in the First Amendment and are currently the ONLY laws requiring any limitation of religion in governmental buildings or organizations.
Is this a "fair" way to do things? In my opinion it's not. If we are going to have a society based on the ideal of religious freedom, we must not appear to have preferences on a governmental level. Instead I believe we should be adopting a true Separation of Church and State statute. We are a country with many faiths. It would be an impossibility to properly honor each faith equally, so we shouldn't be honoring any!
What it comes down to is the old idea of "give an inch and they'll take a mile." Small things like displaying the 10 commandments really don't hurt anyone. In all honesty, most people don't even notice or care that they're there, they just walk past. BUT, here's the issue. Small things like that easily and often become a point of leverage when it's time to talk laws, community statutes or legal movements. For example, when arguing the issue of the Death Penalty, natural death advocates often refer to the "Thou Shalt Not Kill" commandment and often make mention of it's common placement in court houses and other government buildings. **Of course those same activists tend to happily ignore Biblical death penalty laws, but that's another issue**
The other issue is purely on a legal level. When laws based on religious beliefs limit the freedoms of those outside of that religious group, they are in fact unconstitutional. Unfortunately, once they are in place, it can be hard to get rid of them. In this issue there are plenty of examples, the ones that come to mind first concern marriage, but go well beyond there and exist on both local and federal levels. Here however, I will focus on marriage because it's the most obvious example.
When I mention marriage, I am not simply referring to same sex issues, but also plural issues. Both same sex marriage and plural marriages are illegal based on religious beliefs. However, not everyone's religious beliefs include such exclusions. As a Pagan, my religion not only supports same sex and plural marriage, but encourages individuals to decide what type of relationship is the best fit for them - no matter how "non-traditional" it may be. Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints* (Fundamentalist Mormons) encourage polygamist marriages. And sexuality has been shown NOT to be a chosen issue, but a biological one.
Having laws limiting marriage to one man and one women is in fact "prohibiting the free exercise" of FLDS followers, Pagans and other groups which support and/or encourage non-traditional marriage, making these laws unconstitutional. Which is why these laws are now being fought. But think of what a world we would have had if they never would have been made. It may be hard to picture, but few things are as beautiful as acceptance! So had these laws never been made, had same sex couples been able to marry all along, we wouldn't be fighting these laws now. Instead, generations of people would have grown up with an entirely different outlook on same sex couples - and sexuality in general. Moreover, plural families - of all types - would not be seen as "strange" or risk the loss of children over having additional partners.
Of course, this is just a single example. But others could easily be explored. So what it comes down to is if laws are being created with the beliefs or statutes of a single faith in mind they are going to limit the practice of other faiths, breaking that promise of free exercise. Instead laws should be based on the idea of keeping individuals safe and healthy.
I will say however that I DO recognize that there are possibly religious beliefs which MUST be made illegal in order to keep individuals safe and healthy! And I fully support laws which the safety of the individual are upheld over the freedom to practice a religious belief. BUT, the only time where such laws should be made, in my opinion, is where the free practice of religion endangers the safety or freedom of children (under 18) or non-practicing individuals or where lives are endangered. If a member of a religion makes a choice to risk their health or freedom because of religion, that should be their choice, however they should not have the right to choose to risk the health or freedom of those outside the faith or of those who do not have the ability to make such choices (mentally disabled, minors, etc.) Of course I tend to have that belief when it comes to ANYTHING, religiously based or not.
*I want to make a point to mention here that when I refer to Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints I am NOT referring to the Warren Jeff's led cult by the same name, but the FLDS religious group. There IS a difference and not all FLDS believers are members of a dangerous cult it's those individuals to whom I am referring.