What do churches and courts have in common?

The surprising connections between churches and courthouses.

The two institutions share similarities, rooted deeply in culture and history.

In architectural history, it’s been a linear progression epic design proportion. The separation of Church and state is one of the pillars of modern western society. Today, we all enjoy the freedom of religious expression. People base their lives and morals on more than just rules and laws. In fact, they have views, ideas, and beliefs. The government, on the other hand, acts by purportedly following a spiritually unbiased system.

Having said that, there are still many similarities between courthouses and churches.


Exterior churches and courts

Consider the pictures below:

On the left is the Parker Courthouse in Georgia and on the 16th Baptiste Church in Alabama.

The buildings are styled façades are identical: truss, clerestory windows, aisled roofs match as if they were interchangeable. The windows arches are dressed in prominent roundel frames. The dominance of the early Christian styles catches the viewer.

Interior of churches and courts

The floorplans are positioned respectively.

For this purpose, each courtroom is its own entity – its own church. In the same way in a cathedral, some areas are restricted. The same way a preacher gives a sermon a judge goes through the proceeding. Unless a person is invited to the altar, they don’t go to it while the procession is taking place. In a courtroom, unless the judge invites a person to the bench they can’t walk up during the proceedings.

The institutions are separated into two main sections: for the court, it’s the bar and for the church, it’s the altar. Within the two main sections are the numerous other sections from the choir, bailiff, etc. – each at different levels in the hierarchy. Lawyers recite lines hundreds of year-old lines like a choir sings a hymn. In order to go past the bar, a person must be either accused of a crime, passed the bar exam, or work for the courts, e.g., judges, lawyers, stenographers, and so on. In court, you have to be a part of the church to access similar parts.

These affinities date back to several centuries, and they’re tied to the evolution of our society.

Both churches and courthouses are very important places for the 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 deacon would in a church. They both hold authority positions, and their location matters. For example, their actual physical placement within the court can highlight their particular status.

A long history.

The similarities between the Churches and the courts go a long way back. In ancient history, the Church was often the core of the community. This was true even long before legality became an established force, ruling our lifestyle as it does today. In ancient times, religious leaders were the ones to determine the administration of justice and other matters. In addition to that, the Church often undertook important clerical tasks. It was one of the first entities to ever record the population through censuses and other activities, among other things.

The Magna Carta created what we call today asset forfeiture and habeas corpus.

Subsequently, governing bodies and religious authorities acquired different roles. The separation happened gradually. It led to the legal system as we know it today throughout most of the world. The heritage of such a long history can still be witnessed to this very day. Whenever you walk into a courtroom, or in a church, that spirit is still very much alive.

To this day, we owe a lot of our historical and genealogical knowledge to clerical archives!

Over time, governing bodies, and religious authority acquired different roles. The separation happened gradually. It led to the legal system as we know it today throughout most of the world. The heritage of such a long history can still be witnessed to this very day. Whenever you walk into a courtroom, or in a church, that spirit is still very much alive.

Beautiful buildings to really make an impression.

Beautiful buildings to really make an impression.

Churches are known as examples of stunning architecture. Their style is visually striking, aiming to really make an impression on visitors. Courthouse buildings, especially historical facilities, actually have layouts that closely reminisce that of churches. There’s usually 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, a courthouse aims to be highly recognizable. Back when cities were smaller, courthouses would have been among 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 skyrocket the size of urban areas. This trend is particularly prominent in some parts of America, where courthouses are actually highly coveted historical buildings, which still stand out as important landmarks. A courthouse, just like a church or a library, is an important location for a city, and in some cases, it can also become one of its most famous features, even attracting tourists and other visitors!

The separation of Church and state.

The idea of two distinct concepts for Church and state mainly comes from Christianity.

However, there wasn’t always a clear dividing line between government, legality, and spirituality. In some cultures, important legal and political decision-making was only possible with the direct influence of spiritual leaders. In most cases, they were still deeply tied in superstitious beliefs, such as the interpretation of various natural phenomena. Throughout history, religious leaders in the Christian world also had a massive impact on other spheres, such as politics and legality. However, the separation between Church and the legal system became more predominant through the ages.

The most significant remnant of the past is to be found in the layout and functionality of courts today. The jury, for example, represents the people.

Jurors and church audiences are similar in some respects. Much like jurors are there to witness a trial, hear the evidence and eventually contribute to an outcome, churchgoers are there to witness the glory of the Lord, and participate in important community rituals, which means so much to our cultural identity.

The American Influence.

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.

Furthermore, all these different spiritual minorities needed an unbiased, secular legal system and government body, as a way to preserve individual religious freedom and personal liberty. These are some of the most important values on the basis of America (and many other countries throughout the world), from the founding fathers to our very present day.

In addition to that, state legislatures also wanted to prevent the diversion of significant government funding to parochial and ecclesiastic educational facilities. This factor became yet another driving motive for the distinct rift between the Church and the state. Such a trend can also be linked with the First and the Fourteenth amendments to the US Constitution.

Conclusions and final thoughts.

In conclusion, while the law and the Church are two different bodies, they share common roots. They trace back to the very beginning of human society. These institutions date back to an essential need of people: coming together. Both the Church and the law gave us a common frame. 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 definitely translated to both the religious and the legal fields over the ages. This is just the tip of the iceberg with the similarities between the churches and courts.

Ask yourself more about the similarities between the church and courts and let me know what you think.

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