Thomas Jefferson - Bill of Rights - First Amendment - Separation of Church and State
Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights and First Amendment without the words "Separation of Church and State."

Separation of Church and State

Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment

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Today, many Americans think that the First Amendment says "Separation of Church and State." The Courts and the media will often refer to a ruling as being in violation of the "Separation of Church and State." A recent national poll showed that 69% of Americans believe that the First Amendment says "Separation of Church and State." You may be surprised to learn that these words do not appear in the First Amendment or anywhere else in the Constitution!1  Here is what the First Amendment actually does say.

The First Amendment :
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.
So where did the words "Separation of Church and State." come from? They can be traced back to a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1802. In October 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to President Jefferson, and in their letter they voiced some concerns about Religious Freedom. On January 1, 1802 Jefferson wrote a letter to them in which he added the phrase "Separation of Church and State." When you read the full letter, you will understand that Jefferson was simply underscoring the First Amendment as a guardian of the peoples religious freedom from government interference. Here is an excerpt from Jefferson's letter. . .

"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, prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State." Read the full text of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association ..
Jefferson simply quotes the First Amendment then uses a metaphor, the "wall", to separate the government from interfering with religious practice. Notice that the First Amendment puts Restrictions only on the Government, not the People! The Warren Court re-interpreted the First Amendment thus putting the restrictions on the People! Today the government can stop you from Praying in school, reading the Bible in school, showing the Ten Commandments in school, or have religious displays at Christmas. This is quite different from the wall Jefferson envisioned, protecting the people from government interference with Religious practice.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association he never intended the words "Separation of Church and State" to be taken out of context and used as a substitute for the First Amendment, but for all practical purposes is what the courts have done.

If actions speak stronger then words, it is interesting to note that 3 days after Jefferson wrote those words, he attended church in the largest congregation in North America at the time. This church held its weekly worship services on government property, in the House Chambers of the U.S. Capital Building. The wall of separation applies everywhere in the country even on government property , without government interference. This is how it is written in the Constitution, this is how Thomas Jefferson understood it from his letter and actions, and this is how the men who wrote the Constitution practiced it.

"The metaphor of a wall of separation is bad history and worse law. It has made a positive chaos out of court rulings. It should be explicitly abandoned."Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist

Also notice that there are two parts to the First Amendment that refer to religion: the establishment clause2 and the free exercise clause3. Today much is said about the establishment clause but there is very little mention of the free exercise clause.

While the words "Separation of Church and State" do not appear in the U.S.A. Constitution, they do appear in the constitution of the former U.S.S.R.
Communist State.

At the very heart of Jefferson's idea "Wall of Separation",  is the notion that the government will not interfere with people's right to worship God.  The very fact that the government has ruled to regulate religious practices, indicates that the government has crossed that "Wall of Separation."  

Separation of Church and State, School Prayer, Religious Freedom, First Amendment, Bible reading, School Prayer 


Culture War - Cultural War To learn about the issues that are dividing America and where they came from visit Culture-War.

1.  You can quickly check to see if the words "Separation of Church and State" are in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights by clicking the link to the on-line documents.  Then use the word search feature on your web browser to see if the words are in the document.
2.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that the Federal Government will not Establish a State Religion, such as some European Countries had at the time.  It should be noted that at the time of the writing of the First Amendment that various States had dominate Churches, such as Connecticut had the Congregationalist, Massachusetts had the Puritans, & Virginia had the Baptist.  The people did not want the Federal government to impose any one Religion or Denomination on all the States; each State preferred to have the freedom to choose a religion that the people preferred.  It should also be noted that acknowledging "God" has always been a tradition in our country, (as indicated by our national motto "In God We Trust") and as God is recognized by many faiths, it does not Establish any one religion but rather embraces many Religions and Denominations. 
3.  The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment states that the Federal Government will not interfere with the peoples freedom to worship God.  It has long been a tradition for the country to observe National days of prayers in which people pray to God.  Government decreed National Days of Prayer never established a national Religion but only encouraged people to worship God in their own faith.  However, when the Supreme Court starts to make rules about the practice of or prohibits worship, prayer or Bible reading then they have violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.   When the Courts prohibit prayer or Bible reading they act to establish a secular faith in our country, and in doing so violate not only the Free Exercise Clause but also the Establishment Clause.

For more background on Jefferson's intent on the "Separation Phrase" I suggest reading, "Take Back America" (pub. 2000, 2004) by Mathew Staver chapter 2.  Book is available through Liberty Counsel (800) 671-1776 
Some other sites on the School Prayer Issue All About History.

Last Update Oct. 2014