Thomas Jefferson – A Wall of Separation Between Church and State
Below is the famous letter from Thomas Jefferson where the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” originates. This phrase is not in the Constitution but it has become a major point of controversy in our legal system.
Mr. Jefferson’s letter is a response to a letter from the Danbury Baptist association of Connecticut. Jefferson starts by showing appreciation for their kind words to him.
He quickly turns to the main topic, Religious Freedom. He says, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.”
Here Jefferson make one of my favorite statements on limitation of government. He says, “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions.” This was a shared sentiment of Thomas Heyward’s wife. In the face of British oppression she said, “over my opinions you possess no control.”
Jefferson goes on to quote part of the First Amendment to the Constitution which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Jefferson writes that this builds a “wall of separation between Church & State.”
Reading the letter from the Danbury Baptist association, it seems to me that Jefferson’s intent was to keep “the State” out of “the Church”. The Baptists were concerned that someone who rose to power in America would take actions against religious liberty. Jefferson was reassuring the Danbury Baptists that the federal government would not infringe in any way on their “rights of conscience.”
The major controversy comes in when we talk about taking the Church out of the State. A good, recent, example is Day of Prayer event on August 6th 2011 called by Rick Perry, Governor of Texas. This is a State official using his office as Governor to promote a religious event.
Does the “wall of separation between Church & State” prevent Governor Perry from doing this? I personally do not think it does not. Another group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a law suite against it because they think it does.
In my opinion, the First Amendment clause on religion specifically limits the Congress of the federal government from making any law that would establish a religion or limit the free exercise of religion. These are my own words but is it nearly a straight quote of the clause.
In Governor Perry’s case, he is not the federal Congress, he is not establishing a religion, but he is exercising his “right of conscience.”
Thomas Jefferson says, “truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, and is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, … unless (by human interposition) disarmed of her natural weapons – free argument and debate.” We will only fall into error if the powerful among us take away our First Amendment rights.
Please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on Separation of Church and State.
Quote from Thomas Jefferson
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
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 “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802.
Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, father-in-law of Thomas Mann Randolph and John Wayles Eppes), a Delegate from Virginia, a Vice President and 3d President of the United States; born at “Shadwell,” Va., in present-day Albemarle County, Va., on April 13, 1743; attended a preparatory school; graduated from William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Va., in 1762; studied law; admitted to the bar and commenced practice in 1767; member, colonial House of Burgesses, 1769-1775; Member of the Continental Congress, 1775 and 1776; chairman of the committee that drew up, primary author of, and signer of the Declaration of Independence 1776; Governor of Virginia, 1779-1781; member, State house of delegates 1782; again a Member of the Continental Congress, 1783-1784; appointed a Minister Plenipotentiary to France in 1784, and then sole Minister to the King of France in 1785, for three years; Secretary of State of the United States in the Cabinet of President George Washington, 1789-1793; elected Vice President of the United States and served under President John Adams, 1797-1801; elected President of the United States in 1801 by the House of Representatives on the thirty-sixth ballot; reelected in 1804 and served from March 4, 1801, to March 3, 1809; retired to his estate, “Monticello,” in Virginia; active in founding the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.; died at Monticello, Albemarle County, Va., July 4, 1826; interment in family cemetery at Monticello.