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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
PO Box 210005 . Nashville TN 37221

Eschewing Obfuscation

Jefferson's "Wall of Separation"
written by Charles Sumner

published in the August 6th edition of the Nashville Free Press

In an 1802 letter (while President), Jefferson wrote: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared 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." The letter was in answer to a letter from the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association.

Some Religious Right propagandists have taken to outright fabrications in order to refute the Jefferson metaphor. They sometimes claim that Jefferson described his wall as "one-directional," forbidding government intervention into religion, but allowing church intrusion into government. In fact, Jefferson used no such language, as the text of the Danbury letter attests.

Religious Right activists have tried for decades to make light of Jefferson's "wall of separation" response to the Danbury Baptists, attempting to dismiss it as a hastily written note designed to win the favor of a political constituency. But a glance at the history surrounding the letter shows they are simply wrong.

As church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer points out, Jefferson clearly saw the letter as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement on church and state. Before sending the missive, Jefferson had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general. Jefferson told Lincoln he viewed the response as a way of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets."

At the time he wrote the letter, Jefferson was under fire from conservative religious elements who hated his strong stand for full religious liberty. Jefferson saw his response to the Danbury Baptists as an opportunity to clear up his views on church and state. Far from being a mere courtesy, the letter represented a summary of Jefferson's thinking on the purpose and effect of the First Amendment's religion clauses.

Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision the high court said Jefferson's observations "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment." In the court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, "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.'" The decision went on to tell quite explicitly what means. It is only in recent times that separation has come under attack by judges in the federal court system who oppose separation of church and state.

In three subsequent decisions the Supreme Court repeated the very same words defining the meaning of the First Amendment. Yet a tactic of the Religious Right is to look at the actual words in our Constitution and say that separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. In that manner they hope to influence the general populace that it is not a Constitutional principle. Those who are not informed about decisions of the Court may be convinced, since a reading of the Constitution and Amendments will not find those actual words. Of course they will not find the words "religious liberty" or "fair trial" either, yet those principles are inherent in the Constitution.

The genius of our Constitution, which has lasted longer than any other, is that it is in a sense a living document - one not stuck in the past. It has been changed so that now women can vote and slaves are no longer counted as three-fifths of a person. The Fourteenth Amendment provided equal protection, so when the proper cases came before it, the strictures of the First Amendment (originally applying only to Congress) were interpreted so that they now apply to states and other governmental agencies.


The decision of the Nashville Free Press to go to monthly publication has caused me to decide to continue this historical series only in the online edition. So future print issues will contain my column, but it will be devoted to more individual essays rather than a series.


Why Do We Need a Progressive Newspaper?
published in the September 3rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Jefferson's "Wall of Separation"
published in the August 6th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Sage of Monticello
published in the June 18th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Enlightenment and Deism
published in the June 4th edition of the Nashville Free Press

America as a "Religious Refuge"
published in the May 7th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Conflicts over Religion and Government
published in the April 23rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Roger Williams - Freedom's Forgotten Hero
published in the April 9th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty in Colonial America
published in the March 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty Requires Government Neutrality
published in the February 26th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday
published in the February 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Is Posting the Ten Commandments Moral or Immoral?
published in the January 29th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Three-Minute Introduction to Separation of Church and State
published in the January 15th edition of the Nashville Free Press