Wall of separation

Posted in: Jefferson Today, Thomas Jefferson

Guest commentary

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.


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Clearly, religion played a major role in the intellectual life of Thomas Jefferson. Whether his views and practices failed to fit into a traditionally-organized Christian-Judea doctrine, his exhaustive examination, dissection, and authoring of religious studies prove that spirituality mattered to him. Therefore, for anyone to imply that his statute of freedom was created to stifle the practice of religion is completely illogical.

Thomas Jefferson was a believer. He absolutely believed in a God by referencing "the Creator." And he believed that everyone within America's borders deserved the right to believe and worship, or not believe and disregard. He also believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ, whether he was the Messiah or not. In a letter sent to Harvard Professor Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Jefferson stated, "The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man."

So it is entirely within reason to believe that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to empower and protect believers and non-believers alike and not to impose restrictions on them. The key word to understanding this document is contained in its very title, "Freedom." Freedom was the most important attribute that the Founding Fathers wished to achieve. Freedom was the keystone in the foundation of the United States of America.

Freedom of religion meant that all people had an equal right to practice their spiritual doctrines without having to worry about the government challenging, or even limiting them.

In his mind, this free will of spiritual expression belonged to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and what we would refer to in modern times as New Age practitioners. At the same time, Atheists and Pagans also shared in the very same freedom to either reject or pursue their own beliefs. Thanks to the foresight and brilliance of Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, we all have the freedom to believe or not; the freedom to attend church or not; and the freedom to pray or not.

This means that all believers have the exact same liberties, regardless of the fact that their belief systems are completely opposed to one another. For example, the Christian is protected from the government mandating that he or she has to follow a particular denomination and the Atheist is protected from the government mandating that he or she believe at all. It's a brilliant and liberating concept when exercised in the manner it was intended.

The "common-sense" practice of uninhibited religious freedom continued until the late 20th-century when individual special-interest groups began to take offense to public religious practices and what appeared to be governmental sanctions of religious holidays. Many petitions appeared in court where groups of believers and non-believers alike argued whether the other side had any right to express their beliefs at all. This litigious conflict spilled out into the public square where religious symbology came under scrutiny. Public prayer and displays were removed in some sectors. Religious slogans and events were also contested.

Unfortunately, like many of our nation's principles, this one has been skewed, even corrupted at times, to imply that the "separation of church and state" means that all forms of religion cannot be celebrated and/or expressed within the public square. These misguided and ultimately petty arguments would no doubt irritate our Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson who fervently believed the opposite.

Here was an open-minded man who had the foresight to see a unified society, where people of different faiths lived secure in knowing that they all shared the same liberty to express their beliefs (or not) without worrying about the intolerance or interference of the government.

The irony of this debate is that in challenging the spiritual beliefs of others, we have, as a country, inevitably stifled the very freedom that is granted to us by the "separation of church and state." Mr. Jefferson did not want his prized statute to result in the forced removal of all religious practices and references from the public square. He wanted it to allow all people the option to practice religion according to their beliefs, or not practice religion at all, because according to his own pen, "we all are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights," no matter who that Creator is, or is not, to us.


I disagree. Why are you not mentioning faith-based initiatives? That is, the unlimited, gigantic federal government stealing money from people, under threat of jail and fines, and giving it to religious organizations (after the theiving politicians take their cut)? Thomas Jefferson would have been outraged!

From Mr. Jefferson himself, "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 prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state." (Thomas Jefferson, as President, in a letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, 1802; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 369)

This redistribution of wealth is clearly respecting -- financially supporting -- religious establishments.

About public schools, this is the one major mistake Jefferson made -- to steal from all individuals of society (in spite of those who are childless or go to private schools) and give it to these barely competent state-run schools (again, after they take a percentage in loot). Public schools are an extension of the state and should properly have a wall to keep religion out (including the religious expressions of individual students and faculty). These schools should be phased out slowly and privitized, with the great generosity (that has been proven time and again) of Americans to insure poor children be granted scholarships, through voluntary donations.

By the way, I'm visiting Monticello for the first time next week, and I will love every minute!


It seems that Michael Aubrecht's and John Whitehead’s Christian perspectives are getting in the way here and blinding them to Jefferson's intent to keep both government out of religion as well as to keep religion out of government. As everyone is noting here, Jefferson clearly stated that the state was to "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Hence, the concept of separation of church and state was meant to give religions their freedom to practice their beliefs in their churches and not in the public square when that public square is funded by the state. I argue it is the Whiteheads, Aubrechts, et al, that are the ones applying a more modern and short sighted interpretation of the separation of church and state. And, contrary to their claims of the state interfering with religious freedom, their interpretation claims the government cannot interfere with religion at all, but religion can interfere with government all it wants. However, Jefferson realized what these people fail to see, that if a religion interferes with the execution of law it essentially becomes the law and therefore is making a law “respecting the establishment of religion.” To allow this level of interference is to remove the wall of separation between the two and essentially establish a religion of the state, which in turn will ultimately prohibit others of different faiths from free exercise of their religions. Is this really different in principle from the Taliban?

Clearly the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places like schools as Whitehead and many suggest is promoting a Judeo/Christian perspective, thus establishing a religion. The only logical response to this then is that in order to not establish a religion, the state will also have to post the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, The Dharmasutras of Hinduism, Islamic Sharia, the Eight Dynamics of Scientology, the Rules of Rick, etc. And quickly we see there are many problems with this approach, the most obvious being there would not be enough wall space. More importantly arguments surely would arise about which ones are “legitimate” religions. Most would quickly argue my “Church of Rick” is facetious and doesn’t deserve any public wall space. But what about Scientology or Mormonism? Many would argue they are cults at best and are not “legitimate” religions, forcing the government rule as to whether each applicant qualified or not, thus establishing religion.

These modern day critics also fail to read Jefferson’s explanation of the state’s ability to limit religious expression when it is counter to our common laws. Jefferson clear states that the “legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,” showing that as long as the religious practice is expressed solely as an opinion and is not carried out as an action, then it is allowable. But to use the separation of church and state as an argument for allowing actions contrary to our laws is missing Jefferson’s point here altogether. In the extreme we have abortion abolitionists that behave with the religious righteousness of John Brown. Taking the law into their own hands because they believe they have a God and Government given right to. There is no point in arguing with these zealots whether they have a God given right, because they are convinced of their righteousness. We cannot get God to come down and settle the matter with a clear and plain proclamation that all can agree has just been said and given. But we do have the law written plainly before us, and we have Jefferson’s clear explanation that we can all agree he authored. And on this Jefferson is clear: “legitimate powers of government reach actions,” and the “government shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Thus we can also get the less zealous who claim a right to have prayer in school, or at local government functions, to recognize that the separation applies here. The actions of the religious must fall within the rules of the state, and the rules of the state are clear: the state will not interfere with one’s religious practices insofar as they do not violate laws and the state shall not establish a religion.

If Jefferson is to be faulted here, it is that he nuanced his explanation for I fear a more sophisticated audience. Perhaps if Jefferson were alive today he would agree with his political handlers and go for the 10 second sound bite and simply say “Keep them separate.”


I think Jefferson clearly meant to protect the people from government-imposed religion. It has been twisted to try to stop people from exercising their freedom of religion in any public place, like school, etc. and to stop religious organizations, which take on the burden of much of the charity work in this country and the world, from getting a tax break. Very sad. Remember where the founders were coming from, a country where the Church of England ruled. They were trying to set up a society where the government did not impose its religious will on the people. They were trying to establish true freedom. They were not trying to "separate" all religion from government or protect the goverment from religion. I think they would be surely outraged to find the religious persecution that has come upon people in this country in the name of separation of church and state. Kids can't even pray in school anymore. For shame.

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