Many people are shocked to learn that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution or Bill or Rights.
I’m sure you have heard that phrase invoked more times than you can count:
“You can’t have the 10 Commandments in the courtroom because of the separation of church and state.”
“City Hall can’t have a manger scene on the lawn; that violates the separation of church and state.”
“You can’t pray in Jesus’ name at (insert your public appearance here). Haven’t you ever heard of the separation of church and state?”
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. It’s funny that most people invoking this wall of separation are ones who claim to study and defend the Constitution; they, more than anyone else, should know that the mythical “wall” is nowhere to be found in our nation’s governing documents.
So where does the wall of separation appear? In a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a group known as the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut. This letter was a response to a letter from the group in which they voiced their concerns that their state was going to establish a State Church.
A student of American history will remember that it was that very concept—a State Church—that led the Puritans and Separatists to leave their homeland in search of a place where they could practice their religion freely; this exodus eventually led them to the New World, and from Day 1 religious liberty was a focal point.
In fact, most state charters are steeped in theologically sound Christian doctrine, with an emphasis on allowing the people to worship freely, as opposed to the State forcing their religion.
Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists upheld the desires of the people, that Congress make no law “respecting an establishment of religion.” In context, Jefferson was defending the American people from a state-sponsored church; his wall of separation was to protect the church from the state, not the state from the church.
Of equal importance is the reciprocal command: Congress shall not “prohibit the free exercise” of religion. So when people tell me I can’t pray in Jesus’ name, for example, my free exercise is being prohibited.
These defenders of the wall of separation are prohibiting my free exercise. They are adding to and taking away from the Constitution. Don’t let people deceive you; read Jefferson’s letter for yourself. Here is the final draft of the little letter that started the big war:
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.