Wall of separation
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. --Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, January 1, 1802
To our detriment, Jefferson's "wall of separation" concept has often been grossly misapplied to individual speech that references religion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the public schools where the concept tends to be used as justification for censoring, silencing and discriminating against religious individuals.
But Jefferson held a balanced view in that he did not intend his "wall of separation" metaphor to seal religion off hermetically from governmental functions or public life. Jefferson referred to the First Amendment religion clauses as an "expression of the supreme will of the nation on behalf of the rights of conscience." Jefferson was apparently more concerned about governmental control over religious persons and institutions than he was about any influence that religious persons and institutions might exert upon government.
Furthermore, Jefferson's actions as President, as well as the bills concerning religion he had written earlier for the Virginia House of Delegates, demonstrated that he did not espouse the strict separationism often attributed to him. Rather, he was a champion of free speech, including religious free speech and religious freedom in general.
In the ongoing struggle for religious freedom, we must be mindful of maintaining "the wall of separation" while protecting the right of individuals to freely exercise their religion in an increasingly secular society, both in and out of government as well as public places.
John W. Whitehead is president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va.