Separation of Church and State
Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment
Today, many Americans think that the First Amendment says “Separation of Church and State.” The Courts and the media will often refer to a ruling as being in violation of the “Separation of Church and State.” A recent national poll showed that 69% of Americans believe that the First Amendment says “Separation of Church and State.” You may be surprised to learn that these words do not appear in the First Amendment or anywhere else in the Constitution!1 Here is what the First Amendment actually does say.
The First Amendment :
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
So where did the words “Separation of Church and State.” come from? They can be traced back to a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1802. In October 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to President Jefferson, and in their letter they voiced some concerns about Religious Freedom. On January 1, 1802 Jefferson wrote a letter to them in which he added the phrase “Separation of Church and State.” When you read the full letter, you will understand that Jefferson was simply underscoring the First Amendment as a guardian of the peoples religious freedom from government interference. Here is an excerpt from Jefferson’s letter. . .
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” Read the full text of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association ..
Jefferson simply quotes the First Amendment then uses a metaphor, the “wall”, to separate the government from interfering with religious practice. Notice that the First Amendment puts Restrictions only on the Government, not the People! The Warren Court re-interpreted the First Amendment thus putting the restrictions on the People! Today the government can stop you from Praying in school, reading the Bible in school, showing the Ten Commandments in school, or have religious displays at Christmas. This is quite different from the wall Jefferson envisioned, protecting the people from government interference with Religious practice. …
“The metaphor of a wall of separation is bad history and worse law. It has made a positive chaos out of court rulings. It should be explicitly abandoned.”Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist
Also notice that there are two parts to the First Amendment that refer to religion: the establishment clause2 and the free exercise clause3. Today much is said about the establishment clause but there is very little mention of the free exercise clause.
While the words “Separation of Church and State” do not appear in the U.S.A. Constitution, they do appear in the constitution of the former U.S.S.R. Communist State.
At the very heart of Jefferson’s idea “Wall of Separation”, is the notion that the government will not interfere with people’s right to worship God. The very fact that the government has ruled to regulate religious practices, indicates that the government has crossed that “Wall of Separation.”