The Creation of an American Metaphor
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)1
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)2
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