Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State

Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State

Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State

Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State

Synopsis

No phrase in American letters has had a more profound influence on church-state law, policy, and discourse than Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state," and few metaphors have provoked more passionate debate. Introduced in an 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association, Jefferson's "wall" is accepted by many Americans as a concise description of the U. S. Constitution's church-state arrangement and conceived as a virtual rule of constitutional law.

Despite the enormous influence of the "wall" metaphor, almost no scholarship has investigated the text of the Danbury letter, the context in which it was written, or Jefferson's understanding of his famous phrase. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State offers an in-depth examination of the origins, controversial uses, and competing interpretations of this powerful metaphor in law and public policy.

Excerpt

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

—First Amendment, U.S. Constitution (1791)

[Mr. Jefferson's reply to the Danbury Baptist Association] may be
accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and
effect of the [first] amendment thus secured.

—Chief Justice Morrison Waite, Reynolds v. United States (1879)

In the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against
establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of
separation between church and State.'… That wall must be kept
high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

—Justice Hugo L. Black, Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

On New Year's Day, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. In his written address, he used the celebrated “wall of separation” metaphor to describe the First Amendment relationship between religion and civil government. Jefferson wrote, in sweeping, memorable phrases:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between
Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his
worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only,
& not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the
whole American people which declared that their legislature should . . .

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