Wall of separation between church and state

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In the letter “The Bishop Is Wrong About Obamacare” (Jan. 5), the author wrote, “Our Constitution clearly calls for a separation of church and state” to help justify her argument for the contraception mandate to be imposed on religious institutions. Today it’s common to hear people quote or paraphrase Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he coined the term “wall of separation,” but it’s also equally uncommon that people understand its context. Here is some of what the Danbury Baptists first wrote to Jefferson: “ … no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions … what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.”

The “wall of separation” that Jefferson built in his response was meant to be a reassuring bulwark against federal encroachment for the Danbury Baptists, who feared that the federal government would use its power to run roughshod over their religious liberties. Expanded evidence of Jefferson’s sentiments can be found in a separate letter he wrote to Edward Dowse:

“I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. On the contrary we are bound, you, I, and every one, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. We ought with one heart and one hand to hew down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into that tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated.”

I’d encourage PG readers to read the Danbury Baptist letter and Jefferson’s response in full. If you’re going to lean on Jefferson’s wall of separation, it’s best to understand why he built it in the first place.



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