On Separation of Church and State

“It is true that the literal phrase ‘separation of church and state’ does not appear in the Constitution, but that does not mean the concept isn’t there. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

What does that mean? A little history is helpful: In an 1802 letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association, Thomas Jefferson, then president, declared that the American people through the First Amendment had erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” (Colonial religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams used a similar phrase 150 years earlier.)

Jefferson, however, was not the only leading figure of the post-revolutionary period to use the term separation. James Madison, considered to be the Father of the Constitution, said in an 1819 letter, “[T]he number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state.” In an earlier, undated essay (probably early 1800s), Madison wrote, “Strongly guarded…is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States.”

As eminent church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer notes in his book, Church, State and Freedom, “It is true, of course, that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ does not appear in the Constitution. But it was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so clearly and widely held by the American people….[T]he right to a fair trial is generally accepted to be a constitutional principle; yet the term ‘fair trial’ is not found in the Constitution. To bring the point even closer home, who would deny that ‘religious liberty’ is a constitutional principle? Yet that phrase too is not in the Constitution. The universal acceptance which all these terms, including ‘separation of church and state,’ have received in America would seem to confirm rather than disparage their reality as basic American democratic principles.”

Thus, it is entirely appropriate to speak of the “constitutional principle of church-state separation” since that phrase summarizes what the First Amendment’s religion clauses do-they separate church and state.

Religious Right activists have tried for decades to make light of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” response to the Danbury Baptists, attempting to dismiss it as a hastily written note designed to win the favor of a political constituency. But a glance at the history surrounding the letter shows they are simply wrong.

As church-state scholar Pfeffer points out, Jefferson clearly saw the letter as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement on church and state. Before sending the missive, Jefferson had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general. Jefferson told Lincoln he viewed the response as a way of “sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.”

At the time he wrote the letter, Jefferson was under fire from conservative religious elements who hated his strong stand for full religious liberty. Jefferson saw his response to the Danbury Baptists as an opportunity to clear up his views on church and state. Far from being a mere courtesy, the letter represented a summary of Jefferson’s thinking on the purpose and effect of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

Jefferson’s Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision the high court said Jefferson’s observations “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.” In the court’s 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.'” It is only in recent times that separation has come under attack by judges in the federal court system who oppose separation of church and state.”

 

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