On this date, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter destined to rank with the Declaration of Independence (which he also wrote), the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and even the Magna Carta. It has influenced U.S. Supreme Court rulings, informed national debate, and shaped public opinion for over two hundred years.
This letter introduced Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, upon which the Supreme court in 1879 relied in its first religious liberty ruling, Reynolds v. United States. Citing Jefferson’s “wall” in this precedent-setting First Amendment case, the Court held that:
coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.
The Supreme Court also depended heavily on Jefferson’s metaphor in its landmark case, Everson v. Board of Education, in which it unanimously supported church-state separation. Justice Hugo Black’s eloquent words are as inspiring and relevant today as they were in 1947:
The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institution, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the 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.
The importance of Jefferson’s wall to religious freedom in the United States cannot be underestimated. If it were allowed to crumble:
- Sectarian religion could invade public education.
- Women could be chained to medieval sectarian medical codes.
- Government could force taxpayers to support sectarian schools and other institutions that routinely practice forms of discrimination and indoctrination the vast majority of Americans would find intolerable.
Jefferson’s letter was a response to one from the Danbury Baptist Association written on 7 October 1801 that praised him and voiced a complaint against Connecticut’s establishment of the Congregational Church. The Danbury Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, and they complained that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature — as “favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” Specifically, Connecticut taxed Baptists for the maintenance of Congregationalist churches unless they submitted to the “degrading” practice of obtaining exemption certificates which routed their tax money to their own congregations.
Jefferson received the letter from the Danbury Baptists on December 30 and consulted with the U.S. Attorney General, Levi Lincoln, before replying two days later. Jefferson wrote Lincoln:
The Baptist address, now enclosed, admits of a condemnation of the alliance between Church and State, under the authority of the Constitution. …I know [my response] will give great offense to the New England clergy; but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.
Will you be so good as to examine the answer and suggest any alterations which might prevent an ill effect, or promote a good one, among the people?
Those who are ignorant of the complete history of Jefferson’s position, or who deliberately distort his position (for example, David Barton), sometimes contend that the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause was intended to prevent preferential treatment of one religion over another while allowing non-preferential aid to all religions. However, this argument is completely contrary to the facts. James Madison and Jefferson defeated the non-preferential position in the Virginia legislature the year before the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia. It was later considered by the First Congress and again rejected.
Clearly, the intent of the First Amendment was not simply to block the establishment of a single religion, as some claim, but to erect an enduring wall that keeps government out of religion and religion out of government — a wall that strengthens both religion and government. But no matter how firm a wall’s foundation, constant vigilance is required to keep it from toppling.
- Edd Doerr, “Jefferson’s Wall,” The Humanist vol. 62, no. 1 (Jan/Feb 2002).