Separation of Church and State in the Constitution
Although most people believe the words "separation of church and state" are actually in the U.S. Constitution, the words cannot be found there. Rather, they are words penned by Thomas Jefferson in a letter which explains the First Amendment of the Constitution or at least Jefferson’s view of it. The actual words in the First Amendment of the Constitution read as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ."
“Wall of separation between church and state”—History of phrase
In the fall of 1801, the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association sent Jefferson a written address congratulating him on his election. In his reply on January 1, 1802, Jefferson penned these now famous words:
“. . .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.”
We know that Jefferson went through at least two drafts of his reply. The first draft was reviewed by two Republican Cabinet members from New England, including Attorney General Levi Lincoln. In a cover note to Levi Lincoln, Jefferson revealed that he hoped to accomplish two things in the reply. One was to condemn any alliance between church and state. His views on this subject were generally those of his political party, the Republicans of the time, and well known from his previous writings. They were in direct opposition to the views of the Federalist party. Jefferson also told Levi Lincoln that he saw the reply as an opportunity to explain why he did not proclaim fasts and thanksgivings as his presidential predecessors had. However, sentences in his original draft specifically referring to fasts and thanksgivings were deleted on advice from Levi Lincoln that they would offend New England Republicans for whom the proclamation of various fasts and thanksgivings was respected tradition.
A Massachusetts newspaper printed Jefferson’s in 1802. It was then forgotten for 50 years until it was re-published in an edition of Jefferson’s writings in 1853 and reprinted in 1868 and 1871.
Use by the U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court highlighted the phrase “wall of separation” in 1878 by declaring in Reynolds v. U.S. “that it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [first] amendment.” Since that time, the phrase has become common in American jurisprudence.
Controversy over use
The use of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” has been controversial, even among members of the Supreme Court. In 1962, Justice Potter Stewart wrote that jurisprudence is not "aided by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the 'wall of separation,' a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution." In 1985, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called Jefferson’s phrase misleading, stating "unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson's misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years." Many Americans believe that relying on a vague metaphor penned by a partisan politician who was not present when the Constitution was written, rather than the words of the Constitution as drafted in compromise by people of varying political views and ratified by the states, is grossly inappropriate and allows the courts to declare unconstitutional many practices which are not actually unconstitutional.
Was Jefferson merely assuring the Danbury Baptists that the government would never interfere with matters of the church or was he severing all connection between government and religious practice? It’s revealing to note that two days after sending his reply to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson attended a Sunday worship service held in the House of Representatives and continued to attend these services throughout his two terms in office. He also granted permission to various church denominations to worship in executive office buildings and conveyed in his First Inaugural Address the position that religion was necessary for the welfare of a government by the people and for the people.
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