The Misleading Metaphor – Separation of Church and State (Part 3)

The Misleading Metaphor – Separation of Church and State (Part 3)

The words “separation of church and state” are not found in the Constitution, Bill of Rights, or any other Founding document, yet most Americans today are more familiar with this phrase than they are the First Amendment. Where did this phrase come from?

It originally came from a previously obscure letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut in 1802. The Baptists were concerned that Jefferson, an Episcopalian [from the Church of England], would select his denomination of Christianity as the state-sponsored denomination in America. They were concerned that Baptists might be persecuted by the federal government just as they had been persecuted by the Church of England. After all, many of the founders had come to America to escape persecution of their religious denomination by the Church of England. Fear of government persecution is what spurred the Danbury Baptists to write to President Jefferson. They were concerned that the Church of England was about to become the Church of America. In his letter of reply to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson assures the Baptists that they have no need to fear the government getting involved in their religious matters, because:

“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 or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” [1]

This obscure letter by Jefferson, which was never cited in any founding documents nor in any court decisions until later in the twentieth century, is the only source of the so-called “separation of church and state” language. In fact, Jefferson also wrote in another letter that the government was prohibited from interfering in any and all religious exercises.

“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted [prohibited] by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions . . . or exercises.” [2]

Jefferson would have considered voluntary Scripture reading or prayer in schools a religious exercise protected by the Constitution. His letter to the Danbury Baptists did not influence our government much until 1947, when a court decision (which quoted this phrase) took it completely out of context. The purpose of the Establishment Clause is actually to protect religious institutions and public religious exercises from government intervention or control. Yet, with the current misapplication of the phrase “separation of church and state,” we are falsely led to believe that it is Congress’s responsibility to restrict religious expression in all areas of government and culture. This is so far removed from the original intent of the Establishment Clause that it has in fact flipped the intent of the First Amendment on its head! [3]

As mentioned in a previous blog, the late Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist had the most succinct and to the point description of the so-called separation of church and state. He referred to it as “a misleading metaphor”:

“But the greatest injury of the ‘wall’ notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights… The ‘wall of separation between church and State’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” [4]

What was originally intended to prevent Congress from interfering with religious institutions or exercises has only recently been misinterpreted as meaning that Congress must restrict religious exercises. As we have seen, nothing could be further from the original intent of the Founders. Understanding the origin of this phrase can help us communicate about our actual First Amendment rights more effectively.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” 1802

[2] Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Samuel Miller,” 1808

[3] David Barton, Original Intent

[4] Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Wallace v. Jaffree, U.S. Supreme Court, 1985

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