Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation between Church & State”
The Founding Fathers wrestled with the role of government in religion just as modern Americans do today. Many Americans mistakenly believe that the phrase “separation of church and state” comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment states,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
This amendment contains two clauses regarding the rights of American citizens with regard to their religious beliefs. The first, the so-called Establishment Clause, says that the government cannot make a law creating an “establishment” of religion. Prior to the Revolution, the colonies existed under the Church of England as the established church. All citizens were forced to support this church even if they attended other churches, and there were many restrictions on office holding and voting for dissenters. The second part, the so called Free Exercise Clause, bars the government from interfering with the citizens’ free exercise of their religious beliefs.
So where does the phrase “separation of church and state” come from? It is from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut on January 1, 1802.
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.
Jefferson was attempting to explain the intent of the First Amendment as making sure government could not interfere with an individual’s right of conscience or make a person support a church with which he did not agree. There are three primary interpretations of the First Amendment today: Separationism holds that the First Amendment prevents the government from supporting or promoting any religion whatsoever. Accommodationism holds that the government may support religion generally, as long as it treats all faiths equally. Preferentialism holds that the First Amendment only prohibits the government from forming a national church, but does not prevent it from explicitly endorsing one religion.
Which of the three interpretations do you believe the constitution best supports? We invite you to share your thoughts.