Understanding 'Separation of Church and State'
- Wednesday, September 03, 2003
There were many, though, who were devoted to Jefferson. Among these were the fiercely loyal Republicans of the Danbury Baptist Association. They had written the president a somewhat belated letter, congratulating him on his election to office and applauding his lifelong devotion to religious liberty. On New Year's Day, 1802, Jefferson replied to this group.
"Because Jefferson's foes had vilified him as an infidel, he hoped this letter would reassure the pious Baptists that he was a friend of religion and an advocate of religious liberty," Dreisbach explains. "Jefferson also wanted to use the letter as a vehicle to explain his views on a politically divisive issue -- why he, as president, had declined to proclaim days for public thanksgiving and prayer, as Presidents Washington and Adams had done before him."
In his letter, Jefferson endorsed the Danbury Baptists' desire for religious freedom. Declaring that religion is a matter between a man and his God, and that the powers of government reach actions and not opinions, Jefferson affirmed his reverence for the First Amendment. He noted that its Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses denied Congress (the national legislature) the authority to establish a religion or to dictate one's religious beliefs, "thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.."
"One of the things Jefferson wanted to address," says Dreisbach, "was the question of the relationship between the national government and state governments on matters pertaining to religion. The constitutional framers wanted to avoid the creation of a national church like that which existed in England."
Thus, in 1802, and indeed, for the first 150 years of American history under the U.S. Constitution, laws prohibiting an establishment of religion applied only to the national government. State governments could maintain religious establishments if they so chose. The word "respecting" in the First Amendment confirms that Congress could neither establish a national church, nor disestablish existing state religious establishments.
So, in essence, what Jefferson was telling the Danbury Baptists was that he, as president of the national government, had no authority to proclaim a religious holiday because that authority belonged to the individual states.
The Wall Today
Dreisbach's book points out that following this one letter, Jefferson's metaphor slipped into obscurity in both public and private papers. It was not until 1947 that it was rediscovered by Justice Hugo L. Black in a Supreme Court case, Everson v. Board of Education. In that decision, which concerned the use of state funds to transport children to religious schools, Justice Black cited the "wall of separation," and characterized it as "high and impregnable."
"Black's wall differs from Jefferson's wall," says Dreisbach. "Jefferson's wall explicitly separated the institutions of church and state, while Black's wall separates religion and all civil government. Moreover, Jefferson's wall separated church and the national government only."
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