The two institutions share similarities, rooted deeply in culture and history.
The separation of Church and State represents a pillar of modern Western society. Today, we all enjoy freedom of religious expression. People base their lives and morals on more than just rules and laws. They have views, ideas, and beliefs. The Government, on the other hand, acts by following a spiritually unbiased system.
Having said that, there are still many similarities between courthouses and churches—especially in this country. In fact, in America, law has become our secular religion. The affinity between law and religion in the United States dates back to the formation of the country, tied to the evolution of American society.
Both churches and courthouses are very important places for our communities. In these buildings, people gather, listen, come together, and perform useful social functions.
In some ways, the courts and the Church are almost mirror images of one another. These similarities also affect the sheer layout and design of the rooms which host them. For example, the judge would occupy a very similar place as a minister would in a church. They both hold authority positions, and their location matters. Their actual physical placement within the court can highlight their particular status. The jury, sitting to the side of the court area, occupies the same position as choir in a church.
A long history.
In ancient history, the Church acted as the core of the community. This was true long before the legal system became an established force, ruling our activities as it does today. In ancient times, religious leaders determined the administration of justice and other matters. In addition to that, the Church undertook important clerical tasks, such as recording the population through censuses. To this day, we owe a lot of our historical and genealogical knowledge to clerical archives!
Over time, governing bodies, and religious authorities acquired different roles. The separation happened gradually, usually prodded by organized resistance to state-sponsored religion. It led to the legal system as we know it today. The heritage of such a long history can still be witnessed whenever you walk into a courtroom, or a church.
Beautiful buildings really make an impression.
Churches exemplify the most stunning remnants of historical eras. Designed to be visually striking, aiming to make an indelible impression on visitors, churches became the focus of each generation’s best architects. Courthouse buildings, especially the older ones, have layouts closely resembling those of churches. They usually have a beautiful entrance, often adorned by columns or arches, as well as a tower, which makes the building closely identifiable within the community.
Much like a Church building, an American courthouse aims to be highly recognizable. Back when cities were smaller, courthouses became the most important buildings in the whole settlement, and probably some of the earliest “proper” buildings to be established, before massive population spikes and big residential constructions would eventually swell the size of urban areas. In some communities, courthouses are highly coveted historical buildings, which stand out as important landmarks. A courthouse, like a church or a library, occupies an important location in a city and, in some cases, can also become one of its most famous features, even attracting tourists and other visitors!
The separation of Church and State.
The idea of Church and State as two distinct concepts mainly comes from Protestant Christianity.
Before the Protestant Reformation, there was not a clear dividing line between government, legality, and spirituality in Europe. Due to the unity of Church and State in the feudal system, important legal and political decision-making only occurred with the direct influence of spiritual leaders. Because of this, State actions were deeply clothed in superstitious beliefs, such as the interpretation of various natural phenomena. During the is time (referred to as The Dark Ages, for good reason), religious leaders in the Christian world had a massive impact on other spheres, such as politics and law. However, the separation between Church and the legal system inevitably began, as various Protestant sects split from the established (Catholic) church, the established (feudal) State, and, necessarily, the established economic system. In this way, as scholars like Max Weber recognized, the Protestant Reformation and the rise of capitalism were one in the same.
The American Influence.
As noted supra, the capitalist revolution represented a break from past religion and past government, which had acted to restrict individual freedom. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the American War of Independence and the United States Constitution, which forever codified the rejection of established religion and the separation of Church and State.
The idea of a secular government became even more solidified in the world during the massive wave of immigration to the United States. Many people moved from Europe to the new world, in search of religious freedom.
All these different spiritual minorities needed an unbiased, secular legal system and government, as a way to preserve individual religious freedom and personal liberty. These are the most important values forming the foundation of American government (copied by many other countries throughout the world) from the Founding Fathers to the present day.
Because of these foundational tenets, American legislatures also sought to prevent the diversion of significant government funding to parochial and ecclesiastic educational facilities. This factor represented another driving motive for the distinct division between Church and the State. The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution virtually require it.
Conclusions and final thoughts.
While the law and the Church are two different bodies, they share common roots. They can be traced back to the very beginning of human society. These institutions to protect an essential need of people: coming together. Both the Church and the law gave us a common framework, a way to relate to one another, even without necessarily sharing deeper personal connections. The need for a central authority, the involvement of the people, the reverence for power, and the respect for certain roles are all shared values. These have translated to both the religious and the legal fields over the ages.
After gaining its independence, the United States became the first country in the Christian world to demand a clear bulwark between the Church and the State. The First Amendment established a clear freedom of religion, but this very freedom assured that no single religion had precedence over any other religion. The Constitution rejected the concept of a state religion and established a form of government independent from religion itself.
Without religion to influence government, the United States became a nation of laws, and laws themselves became a substitute for religion. In this country law has become a secular religion and the courthouse its house of worship. When you walk into a Federal Court, you are walking into a national church. Hence the reverence and respect expected of the congregants who enter into an American court. Having myself practically grown up in church, I often marvel at the similarities between a Federal courtroom and the sanctuary of a Protestant Church.
Links and references:
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism