Church, State 'Wall' Not Idea of Jefferson; Fear of Catholics by Justice cited.(PAGE ONE)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Church, State 'Wall' Not Idea of Jefferson; Fear of Catholics by Justice cited.(PAGE ONE)


Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

New research on Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state shows that Jefferson never intended it to be the iron curtain of today, which instead was built on anti-Catholic legal views in the 1940s.

Though the new scholarship has received good reviews for exploding a "Jeffersonian myth" about a wall against religion, others say it is too late to tear down a barrier that Americans feel comfortable with.

"What we have today is not really Jefferson's wall, but Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black's wall," said American University professor Daniel Dreisbach, whose forthcoming book explores how Jefferson coined the "wall" metaphor.

Mr. Dreisbach's arguments parallel those of University of Chicago law professor Philip Hamburger, whose new book also says Justice Black's anti-Catholicism - learned in the Ku Klux Klan - influenced his 1947 ruling that the First Amendment created a "high and impregnable" wall between religion and government.

The two authors say the Founders did no such thing and that the "wall of separation" has become a "lazy slogan" for judges and politicians.

In the Supreme Court's 1947 Everson decision - forbidding New Jersey to spend state education funds for religious education - Justice Black cited the phrase "wall of separation between Church & State," from Jefferson's Jan. 1, 1802, letter to a group of Baptists in Massachusetts.

The new scholarship argues that the Virginian used that metaphor in hopes of winning support in New England - then a stronghold of the rival Federalists - rather than as the definitive interpretation of the First Amendment.

"Jefferson worked with his New England political advisers on the letter," said Mr. Dreisbach, who five years ago began looking at Jefferson's original draft, the political advice and the electoral setting of the period.

The letter actually "backfired" by alienating the Baptists, he said. "The Baptists advocated disestablishment of the Congregationalists in New England, but they were not for separation of religion from public life."

This political interpretation of Jefferson's "wall" caused a national stir when it was part of a 1998 Library of Congress exhibit, to which Mr. Dreisbach contributed. …

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