Rethinking Church and State: The Case of Environmental Religion

98 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2013 Last revised: 15 Apr 2013

See all articles by Robert H. Nelson

Robert H. Nelson

University of Maryland - School of Public Policy

Date Written: September 1, 2011


Environmentalism has many of the features of a religion – sacred sites (wilderness areas), saints (Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson), rules for living (recycling), days of celebration (Earth Day), ascetic requirements (curb energy use), dietary limitations (organic food), indulgences (carbon credits), daily rituals (“green living”), and many others. In arguing that nature has an “intrinsic” value independent of any anthropomorphic considerations, this is an implicit way of saying that the Creation belongs to God, and it is only due to His generosity that the earth is available for human use – so long as His rules are fully obeyed. Indeed, as this paper takes as a starting point, and as contemporary observers increasingly conclude, environmentalism not only functions as a religion but it is an actual religion with its own environmental theology. This raises a difficult constitutional question for the traditional understanding of church and state in the United States. Why is it constitutionally permissible to proselytize environmental religion in public settings such as public elementary and secondary schools, as commonly occurs, while a similar proselytizing of Jewish or Christian religion in these settings would be constitutionally impermissible. Does this existing way of understanding the separation of church and state amount to a form of state religious discrimination against more traditional religions? This paper revises the constitutional understanding of church and state to address this problem.

Suggested Citation

Nelson, Robert H., Rethinking Church and State: The Case of Environmental Religion (September 1, 2011). Pace Environmental Law (PELR) Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2011. Available at SSRN:

Robert H. Nelson (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - School of Public Policy ( email )

College Park, MD 20742-1815
United States
301-405-6345 (Phone)
301-718-4377 (Fax)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics