The Position of Church and State in North America

By Brooke Gazer

The “separation of church and state” refers to the official distancing between organized religion and the government. Of the three countries that comprise North America only one does not have a law that separates the two institutions. Some may be surprised to learn that the odd man out is Canada. The reasons that each country has their respective policies are historical and the way each deal with religious matters varies considerably.


Moving from north to south… The Canadian Charter of rights which is enshrined in the Constitution, states that Canada “is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”. Under this charter freedom of religion is guaranteed, allowing believers to assemble and worship without limitation or interference.

Understanding the political structure of Canada it makes sense that there would not be a separation of church and state. The Queen of England (who is also the Queen of Canada) is the “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England. Without getting into the entire Tudor/Stewart legacy, a lot of blood was shed between the times of King Henry XIII and King James I over the “Divine right of Kings” (or Queens) and ultimately in the name of religious freedom. Although Britain defeated France in the war pertaining to the colonies of Canada, King George realized that he would be unable to govern the French portion which was essentially Catholic, unless they were allowed to keep their own language and religion. So, long before Confederation, the country had two official religions.


The USA was founded by people of various beliefs many of whom came to America to escape religious persecution. The founding fathers of America believed that faith is not a civil contract but a personal matter which should not be profaned by politics. They wished to avoid the evils that had occurred through state controlled churches from the oppression of the Spanish Inquisition to the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell.

The “Establishment Clause” is part of the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. The phrase “separation of church and state” was initially coined in Virginia when Baptists were striving for religious tolerance at a time when the official state religion was Episcopalian.   James Madison and Thomas Jefferson championed their cause. The people who framed these documents had various ways of worshiping but they all came to the table with “Judeo Christian” beliefs. The intent of a separation between church and state was never to prohibit religious expression, in fact, the day following the First Amendment’s passage, Congress proclaimed a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.


Although Mexico is primarily a nation of Catholics the separation of church and state came from entirely different motivation than its northern neighbor. When Spain conquered the “New World” priests marched in the footsteps of soldiers and the church became both wealthy and influential. The church helped to finance several wars and this gave priests considerable control over government.

In 1833 a precedent of limiting the rights of the church was set and later President Benito Juarez enacted laws known as the “Leyes de Reforma”, mandating a separation of church and state. The constitution of 1917 went even further with several articles which have been described as “anticlerical”. These laws prohibited churches from owning property and transferred all church property to the state. The church was prohibited from participating in education, from aiding the poor, engaging in scientific research, or in spreading their teachings. Ministers or priests who were not born in Mexico were banned and those who were “native born” were denied the right to vote as well as other freedoms.

The constitution prohibited any worship outside of a church building. Under these laws the outdoor masses and other religious celebrations during Pope John Paul II’s visits were essentially illegal. By the time of the Pope’s visit many of the more restrictive laws were being ignored but when some officials claimed that the Pope violated Mexican law by wearing his habit in public, President Jose Lopez Portillo offered to pay the 50 pesos fine himself.

In 1992, not long after the Pope’s second visit to Mexico, some of these laws were officially relaxed. Churches were granted limited property rights, the number of priests or ministers were no longer limited and several other restrictions were lifted; however, a strict separation of church and state still remains. The constitution still bars members of the clergy from holding public office, advocating partisan political views, supporting political candidates or opposing the laws or institutions of the state. Marriage is still a civil institution; one can have a church ceremony but must first be married by a government official.


Regardless of the historical roots the current governments of Canada, the USA and Mexico all operate primarily on a secular basis although all three are more religiously diverse today than when their laws were enacted. Mexico is still essentially a nation of Catholics but several protestant churches have made inroads, there is a small Jewish population and about a dozen mosques are scattered across the country. The USA and Canada still have a majority of citizens with “Judeo Christian” roots but altered personal values and immigration from a wider range of countries have caused changes to the way secular institutions function.

While Catholic and Evangelical churches in Mexico have more freedom to express themselves publicly, it is ironic that religious expression north of the border is currently experiencing some suppression. Religious symbols such as menorahs and nativity scenes have been banned by many civic authorities and certain groups have challenged the use of non-secular words and phrase in official entities. For example in the USA a group is lobbying to remove the phrase like “One Nation Under God” from the American Oath of Allegiance. It would seem that while Mexico has become more liberal, Canada and the USA are beginning to become more restrictive towards a public display of faith. Go figure.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, a bed and breakfast in Huatulco.