All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1995

The Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Most Americans Misunderstand the First Amendment's Role in Religion

Dr. Patton is Associate Professor of Economics at Bellevue University, a liberal arts college located at Bellevue, Nebraska. He is also editor of The Bottom Line, a scholarly quarterly published by the Entrepreneurial Leadership Center of the University.

Most Americans have been conditioned to believe and to assume that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires a “wall of separation between Church and State.” This concept is seldom challenged today . . . but it is not actually a part of the Constitution or any of the Amendments; it did not exist until well into the twentieth century.

The establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The meaning was crystal clear to Americans and American jurisprudence for generations. Very simply, the federal government was prohibited from establishing a single national denomination above all others (a state religion—endowed with public funding, special privileges, and penalties on other faiths that reject its doctrines—as Great Britain had) and secondly, the federal government could not interfere with the individual’s right to freedom of worship.

The purpose of the First Amendment was not to protect Americans from religion, it was to protect religion from government intrusion. This “understanding” is in full and obvious accord with the raison d’etre of the Bill of Rights to limit the federal government’s power and thereby secure the freedom of individuals and the rights of the states. The Bill of Rights was a declaration of what the federal government could not do.

The intent of the First Amendment could never have been to separate church and state. Virtually all state constitutions of that day required their elected officials to affirm belief in the Christian faith.[1] Not one of the states would have ratified the First Amendment in violation of their constitutions had its purpose been to separate religious principles from public life.

Quotations from the framers of the Constitution and other leaders of early America illustrate this great principle. George Washington as our first President said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.” And our second President, John Adams, told us, “It is Religion and Morality alone which can establish the principles under which Freedom can securely stand.” Benjamin Franklin echoed Adams’ sentiment: “Only a virtuous people are capable of Freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

On the same theme, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Signer of the Declaration and a leading thinker of the period, said that, “The only foundation for a Republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty.” And James Wilson, who signed the Declaration and the Constitution for Pennsylvania, pointed out that “Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other. The divine law, as discovered by reason and the moral sense, forms an essential part of both.”

No “Wall” Planned

Yes, it would have been impossible for these God-fearing men to have deliberately built a “Wall of Separation” between church and state. Here is how the phrase and eventually the concept of this “wall of separation” originated.

In 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson. They were alarmed about a rumor. Was a national denomination soon to be established? Jefferson responded by letter on January 1, 1802, assuring them that there was no basis to the rumor. He said, “I contemplate with solemn 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 and State.”

The Danbury Baptists were apparently satisfied. They understood the “wall” to be one-directional, protecting them and other churches from possible discrimination and harm by means of a “governmental-favored denomination” status. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s eight-word phrase, “a wall of separation between Church and State,” has become the defining metaphor for today’s misinterpretation of the First Amendment.

Obviously, Jefferson’s letter and this phrase are not part of the First Amendment and it appears far-fetched legal “reasoning” to give it the force of law or to infer intent by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Jefferson’s letter remained in relative obscurity until 1878, when the Supreme Court, in the case of Reynolds vs. United States, cited the whole letter. According to the Court, the “wall of separation between Church and State” meant, “Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere [religious] opinions, but was left free to reach [only those religious] actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.” Thus, the Court ruled against the Mormon practice of polygamy and bigamy because the Justices considered it to be subversive of good order. In other words, the Court used the concept of “separation of Church and State” to keep a general religious principle, monogamy, integral to our society.

Nearly 70 years later, in the 1947 Supreme Court case of Everson vs. Board of Education, a major conceptual change occurred. Citing only Jefferson’s eight words (“a wall of separation between Church and State”) and not their context or previous Supreme Court interpretations, it declared a new meaning: a separation of basic religious principles from public life. Indeed, Jefferson’s eight words became the catch phrase for this new concept.

Then, in 1962 the Supreme Court, in the case of Engel vs. Vitale, redefined the word “church” to mean “a religious activity in public.” The revolt against the roots of Americanism had begun in earnest. Separation of Church and State now meant the government (or state) and its institutions must be “protected” from religion.

Since 1962 there have been over 6,000 court cases challenging religious expressions in public institutions and public life. For example, numerous court cases ruled that verbal prayers in public schools, even if voluntary and denominationally neutral, were un-Constitutional. In 1980, it was ruled that it was un-Constitutional to hang the Ten Commandments on the walls of public school classrooms (ironically, the Ten Commandments are engraved on the chamber walls of the Supreme Court). And in Virginia, a federal court ruled a homosexual newspaper may be distributed on a high school campus, but religious newspapers may not. Needless to say, a cultural war of mammoth proportions was unleashed by the Everson and Engel rulings.

The Tide Is Turning

Interestingly, and significantly, the 1990s have seen more and more court decisions based on the original intent of our Founding Fathers. The Supreme Court ruled in 1990, for instance, that it is permissible to have prayer and Bible clubs at public high schools. The justices also decided in another case that premarital sexual abstinence programs, while religious in nature, can be taught in public schools. The tide appears to be turning back to our traditional, Godly American heritage. []

1.   David Barton, The Myth of Separation (Wallbuilder Press, 1991), pp. 25-35.