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Wall of separation

<p><strong>Guest commentary</strong></p> <blockquote><em>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 &amp; State. --Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, January 1, 1802</em></blockquote> <p><img src=" width="150" height="150" alt="" align="right" />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.</p> <p>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 <em>conscience</em>."  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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <em>John W. Whitehead is president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va.</em>


Isabelle's picture
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.
Isabelle (not verified)
Rick Wellbeloved-Stone's picture
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.”
Rick Wellbelove... (not verified)
Amy Nasir's picture
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!
Amy Nasir (not verified)
Michael Aubrecht's picture
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.
Michael Aubrecht (not verified)
Mike Albert's picture
I would like to respectfullypoint out in response to the post about students being prohibited from praying in a public K-12 school -- children certainly have a right to pray in school, it's called the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. What is prohibited under the establishment clause is the government mandating or even encouraging religious observances -- the state must remain completely impartial.
Mike Albert (not verified)
Dogooder's picture
Judging by his picture the author takes himself way too seriously
Dogooder (not verified)
Steven Cords's picture
Listening to Thomas 'Kip' McKean grandson of Thomas McKean(an American lawyer and politician from New Castle, in New Castle County, Delaware, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the American Revolution) 6 December 2009 in Los Angeles, CA. He related how Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee, was reasoning every Shabbath in the Corinth Synagogue trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. Beginning in Act 18:7-16 7 Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized. 9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city." 11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. 12While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. 13"This man," they charged, "is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law." 14Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, "If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things." 16So he had them ejected from the court.
Steven Cords (not verified)
Sam Lowe's picture
Mr. Whitehead’s statement “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,” is an example of rhetorical mendacity calculated to impose “his” religious belief and his alone on our children. He begins by misstating the issue. It should be kept in mind that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to establish the individual as the political equal of any other, regardless of his station, and as such, the repository of all his rights with the authority to determine their nature and extent, and in a phrase that is too often overlooked, said; “… to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” He later penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to deny to any sect the imprimatur of official government approval with all of it’s attendant coercive authority. It’s particularly instructive to recall that the statute was first rejected by the prevailing religious establishment, [Anglican] and later by the rest of the sects all of which wanted to be established as the “church in charge”. The result was that it took James Madison over six years to manage it through the assembly. Thus, Mr. Whitehead’s charge that Jefferson’s metaphorical wall of separation [which flows a fortiori from the words of the First Amendment] is being used to deny Americans their religious freedom is mendacious, in that its application in fact protects the rights of all Americans to exercise his or her religion as he pleases, without civil disability or penalty; which suggests to me that his interest in religious freedom is limited to his alone. Indeed, were it not for the “Wall” Jefferson spoke of in his letter, all religious sects would be entitled to equal time in the school room by application of the 14th Amendment.
Sam Lowe (not verified)
Steven Cords's picture
Tiger Woods love life is his private matter. People reserve the right to have private lives. Regardless of your sentiments to Tiger's Morality your trashing his love life is regressing our society. Kingdoms of the Earth, that have changed the treatment of Men and Women hold one item in high regard, and that is the Individuals Rights to Privacy. These rights were imitated from Solomon through other Kingdoms from Suleiman, to America itself. King Solomon is one of the central Biblical figures in Jewish heritage that have lasting religious, national and political aspects "golden age" of the independent Israel. As Suleiman stabilized his European frontiers and slave could break his chains to attain Senator or Grand Vizier. Suleiman the Magnificent[1] and in the East, as the Lawmaker (in Turkish Kanuni; Arabic: ), for his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system where private lives had regard. America touted an even a more liberal and progressive Republic where Natural Rights became their Citizens Civil Rights. These Rights to Privacy became American values and character when dealing with The King and His Moral Order of the Church. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine.. delivered us from a Tyrant who claimed responsibility meant to be obedient to his moral order and philosophy of man. Franklin more notably was ridiculed in Philadelphia and London as a womanizer with loose morals. The differentiation between their Political Service and Private Lives distinguished them as Notable Statesman who would Rebel against the Church of England and its King the State. Leaving America with a clear Separation of Powers. Good Day. With appreciation and best wishes, Steven D. Cords
Steven Cords (not verified)
David Jeffers's picture
I wonder what Mr. Wellbeloved-Stone would think of President Thomas Jefferson chairing the D.C. school board and authoring the first plan of education that was adopted by the city, in which this plan used the Bible and Isaac Watt's "Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs" as reading primers?
David Jeffers (not verified)
Clark Shifflett's picture
I visited Jefferson's Montpelier two years ago and was struck by level of participation of its previous owner. It is upon that idea that I base my comments. Following the logic of Rick Wellbeloved-Stone, no confessed believer of any religion has any place in public life. I do not think that is what Jefferson had in mind. There are, in fact, other key points to remember. The government to which Jefferson referred was the federal government. The State governments of the time already had State religions (e.g. Massachusetts Bay Colony, The Quaker State, etc). Still, other States outright forbade religious freedom. New Jersey, for example, did not allow Catholics to hold office until around 1844. This is all said to show the obvious: the government to which Jefferson referred was the federal government. There was no need to write that States could not have State (capital "S") religions because to do so would have been political suicide. So, taking into account that the government to which he referred was federal, what is the best understanding of his meaning? Undoubtedly, Jefferson knew about the various (S)tate religions. He therefore was likely concerned with avoiding a corresponding (s)tate religion. The variation in capitalization is meant to show the difference between sovereign States (e.g. Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee) and sovereign States (e.g. Canada, Mexico, and Bolivia). At the time, the States were considered sovereign. Virginia was a sovereign State and state. As a State, she was subject to the jurisdiction of the federal government on its enumerated powers notwithstanding the secession argument to the contrary. As a state, she retained all other powers not specifically delegated to the federal government, including the power to have a state religion. Taken in this light, Jefferson wanted to convey the importance of the idea that no such state religion should exist on a federal level. Why? Because under such a system, people could be excluded from government participation based on their religion (as was the case with New Jersey). This would be tantamount to "taxation without representation" as espoused by Johnathan Mayhew. This was something Jefferson - along with his colonist compatriots - would not tolerate. It is also important to note that government established religion and religious expression by people in government are analytically distinct. The former precludes the state from passing laws of a particular religious set; for example, passing laws that force a person to adhere to a particular religion like praying while facing Mecca or attending confession. Conversely, the former (religious expression in the government) was totally acceptable as evinced by the customs of the day. For example, while the colonists were yet fighting for their independence, they passed the congressional prayer proclamation of 1779. Jefferson himself referred to rights endowed upon man by his Creator in the Declaration of Independence. It seems to be the acme of foolishness to suggest that only a few years later he would undergo a radical paradigm shift; namely, the idea that religious expression has no place in government. Next, the expression of religion in the halls of government is clearly implied in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Many naysayers love to point out the language that reads "make no law respecting an establishment of religion" but they forget the rest of the sentence that reads "or the free exercise thereof." To be certain, people, in the name of religion, are not allowed to do absolutely anything they choose (thankfully). But the second part of the sentence should be construed to convey the greatest - and not the least - amount of latitude when dealing with questions of church and state. Should the amendment be so narrowly construed as to mean that you can practice the free exercise of religion as long as it is not on government property, in government buildings, on government streets, in government housing, in government funded schools, or near government in general? I don't think that line of reasoning is logical. For the question would be: where, then, can I exercise my religion? The answer: not many places. Finally, to those who hold that allowing religious iconography or symbolism on public property is an affront, I propose there are at least two very good reasons for allowing these. First, as Judge Roy Moore stated, western-jurisprudence was built upon the foundation of Judeo/Christian principles (i.e. the Ten Commandments). So under current law, to allow a display of the Ten Commandments is not promoting a religion so much as a tip of the hat to the corresponding factual history. There are those who would like to be revisionist and claim that religion played only a minor role in the formation of our laws but any such claim is wholly disingenuous. Secondly, if we hold that the government is supposed to be representative of the people, then to allow such symbolism is fully in line with that mission. The government is to be by, for, and of the people. Such displays, then, are only a reflection of the citizens who imbue the government with power for as Jefferson opined, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our country; popular sovereignty means the people rule. Within the constitutional framework, it is entirely permissible to allow the "ruling people" the ability to have their beliefs reflected/expressed on government property. This is true freedom of expression. Of course, the sword cuts both ways. Any religion, so inclined, should be able to have their symbolism allowed on public property. The only way for the government to step across the proverbial line would be to allow one display of a particular religious type and not allow another. There may be disagreement of what constitutes a religion but that is incidental to such a policy.
Clark Shifflett (not verified)
Gail Noyer's picture
I am very astonished to discover, even here, no outcry over the fact that Jefferson is currently being erased from our upcoming textbooks (as reported in the NY Times articles "Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Changes", March 12 and "How Christian Were the Founders" in February). The February article makes the reason clearer, as do some comments here - the point is to show the founders 'intended a Christian nation'. Jefferson, who openly fought for freedom of beliefs ('a matter between each man' conscience and God only'), wrote the bill and who states clearly in his Autobiography that our freedoms were meant to include 'the Jew, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every domination' has to go to, to foist this "Truth" upon the next generation of children and their parents. Two recurrent ploys used: 'It's nowhere in the Constitution!' (No, it's in The Bill of Rights, I believe, with all our other rights) and citing The Mayflower Compact as the "proof" of our founders intentions 180 years later. These were the very laws the founders fought to repeal, as Jefferson makes clear in Query XVII of his Notes on Virginia and in various letters - the laws punishing 'heresy' ('the crime of disagreeing with us', Voltaire called it) with burning, and by which Quakers were executed in New England. Comments about Jefferson being Episcopalian or loving the Baptists are highly misleading. All the founders were indeed raised in one Christian sect or another. Most were also highly aware of the 'ecclesiastical strifes of Protestant Popedom in America','who would all pillory and roast if they could' as Adams put it in a letter to Jefferson on May 18, 1817. The oceans of blood spilled by Christian sects at each others' throats throughout The Protestant Reformation, The Thirty Year War, the burnings of heretics, witches and books, the genocide of some 12 million 'heathens', Crusades, Inquisitions, etc., had turned most of them into deists (in its original sense - to believe in God, but not religion). This is why both Jefferson and Voltaire hoped that education (including science and real history) would one day free religion from 'miracles' and nonsense to salvage only what should be retained - morality and love of God. This is also why Jefferson rewrote the New Testament (twice) in what's misleadingly called The Jefferson Bible. He preferred to attribute the superstitious, fanatical bits to later 'authors', whose 'feeble minds' had been unable to grasp the purer morals (humility,simplicity, neglect of worldly ambitions and honors) he felt were truly taught by Jesus. (See his letters to William Short and Van der Kemp during his revision of 1820.) It was also rightly stated here that this deistic, less tribal vision of God does not work for many. This is why Jefferson never dreamed of imposing his own views. I'm not at all sure they were even published during his lifetime. But that he and Voltaire were both right about teaching real history in schools (whatever people want to hear in churches), I have seen in Europe. Though every country, naturally, is a bit egocentric towards its own history, there is a large body of objectively true knowledge every child is taught - history that includes the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Jews, the Muslims and other countries (including America). I was embarrassed when I first moved here to discover that most Europeans knew more about American history, in fact, than I did. 'Catholic' France still teaches all their kids about The Protestant Reformation, The Enlightenment, The Crusades, The Inquisition with no religious bias, and a sixth-grader here just shakes his head when listening to a George Bush or Sarah Palin. They retain the right to homeschool, if they like, but there is a National Curriculum their children still pass the same exams on, if they hope for any diplomas, and no one would be considered for any halfway serious type of job without those diplomas. Much less political office, or even to lead a religious congregation. I forgot to mention earlier than in the reform of our curriculum (for publishers kowtow to Texas, as the call-ins to the npr program shows), Jefferson is not only to be erased, he is to be replaced by Calvin and Thomas Aquinas as those who 'influenced our freedoms'. But as a religious scholar quipped, Calvin, who burned Servitus at the stake, would probably also be appalled!
Gail Noyer (not verified)
Administrator's picture
Gail, We did do a blog post on Jefferson Today about the Texas Vote. The url is However, the real discussion took place on our Facebook page, and I think the board ultimately decided to keep Jefferson in that particular part of its curriculum. P.S. you may also enjoy this image from May, just before the vote:
Administrator (not verified)
Gail Noyer's picture
Thank you so much for the link. I had searched, but hadn't found it. I especially enjoyed the lecture on Jefferson's religion at William &amp; Mary!
Gail Noyer (not verified)
Legacy NID: 


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