Separation of Church and State: a Debate as Old as American Patriotism

By Jeffrey Adams
Summer Legal Intern

On the anniversary of our nation’s independence, Americans celebrate freedom, but do you know where it comes from? For example, think about the the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Do you know how the phrase “separation of church and State” originated? You won’t find it in the Constitution.

In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson used the now-famous “wall of separation” metaphor to describe the ideal relationship between church and State:

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

Jefferson is revered as one of the earliest American patriots. He drafted the Declaration of Independence that marked our break from English rule. Three years later, he authored The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom that was a precursor to the First Amendment. Later, while serving as our third U.S. President, Jefferson wrote his famous response to the Danbury Baptists.

But the analogy is older than that. It was coined, as far as anyone can tell, by Roger Williams, the founder of the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America. Williams, a Puritan who fled from religious persecution, himself, wrote in 1644 of “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Although Jefferson was not present for the Philadelphia Convention where the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, he led advocates for the religious freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. He borrowed Williams’ analogy to explain why the Founders thought it was so important. After all, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina all proposed something similar to the language of the First Amendment before they would agree to ratify the new Constitution.

In 1878, the Supreme Court invoked Jefferson’s Danbury letter in Reynolds v. U.S., a case that challenged the Constitutionality of a federal law criminalizing bigamy. To determine whether the anti-bigamy law infringed on an individual’s rights, the Court had to interpret the meaning of the First Amendment and noted that “religion” was not defined anywhere by the drafters: “We must go elsewhere, therefore, to ascertain its meaning, and nowhere more appropriately, we think, than to the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted.” The Court reviewed the political and legal environment at the time the Bill of Rights was drafted, noting that states had routinely collected taxes in support of particular religious sects and punished citizens for failing to attend public worship ceremonies. Against this backdrop of government interference in religion, the Court viewed Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists as “an authoritative declaration of the scope” of the First Amendment. And, thus, the “separation of church and State” became enshrined in judicial precedent.

Interestingly, the controversy over this separation is as old as the republic, itself. Jefferson, a believer in decentralized government and Republican party leader, was reviled by the Federalists of the time for his persistent refusal to proclaim a day of thanksgiving or prayer. Jefferson’s refusal to do so was based on his belief that government should not interfere in the religious life of its citizens, and to endorse a day of thanksgiving was, he thought, an exploitation of religion. He believed that in breaking away from the rule of England, we also had to break from their tradition of State-controlled religion. His opponents responded by labeling him a godless Republican. If we look at the disagreement surrounding religious conversations today, the scrutiny given to the faith beliefs of presidential candidates and other public figures, we see that not much has changed.

This July 4th, remember the quintessential American freedom to disagree, and celebrate your right to believe freely without repression or coercion from anyone, especially the government.

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