Contrary to popular belief, the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the U.S. Constitution. Yet, two clauses were intentionally written in the First Amendment– to protect the church from the state.
Not one of the ninety Founding Fathers stated, argued for or against, or used the phrase, “separation of church and state” while debating for months the words used to pen the First Amendment according to Congressional records from June 7 to September 25, 1789.
But, protecting the church from the government was so important that the founders inserted two caveats in the First Amendment, known as the Religion Clause:
- The Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .” and,
- The Free Exercise Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The provisions ensured that “separation of church and state” meant freedom to worship, not freedom from worship.
Sadly, the clauses to protect the church became muddled in 1947 when the U.S. Supreme Court created an erroneous precedent for ruling based on seven words from one personal letter– not the U.S. Constitution. By misrepresenting a phrase Thomas Jefferson used in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association, the Court actually ruled contrary to Jefferson’s meaning– and the Constitution’s Religion Clause.
Even if a letter was a valid basis for U.S. law, the Supreme Court misinterpreted what Jefferson wrote– because the justices did not understand, rejected– or ignored its context.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists were anti-Federalists who supported state’s rights and a limited centralized government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were instrumental in the passage of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights in 1776 and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.
In 1791, Jefferson and Madison influenced the framing and ratification of the first ten amendments: The Bill of Rights. The Establishment Clause partly resulted from the Virginia Statutes, which had de-established the Church of England in Virginia, guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all faiths, and spurred other states to reverse laws that had originally mandated religious requirements.
Within this context, the Baptists were foremost concerned with preventing the federal government from having the power to regulate or eliminate individual liberties, religious freedom, and the right to freely worship. Jefferson shared their concern, which is why he wrote “natural rights” in his letter. This concept was widely understood in the 18th century as common knowledge: “natural rights” were God-given and inherently “inalienable,” which no government could supersede.
The Supreme Court failed to recognize Thomas Jefferson’s stated intent within the context of his voluminous work (The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, or Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson).
Jefferson made a poignant remark in Notes on the State of Virginia, which clarified his thinking:
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”
Terms like “fence” or “wall” were used to describe the importance of a limited government– in order to prevent a government from interfering or prohibiting religious activities. The intent of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment was always to safeguard the church– from the state– to ensure that religious freedom and freedom to worship would not be overrun by a gargantuan state.