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The Founders really did intend for there to be a wall of separation between Church and State

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 17 years ago, in 2005, on the World Wide Web.

Few groups of people in America today produce as much mythistorical bunk as the Religious Right, and few people are victimized by their distortions than the so-called Founding Fathers. In order to manufacture the unitary conservative Christian heritage for America that they pin their nationalist mythistory on, Christian fundamentalists routinely repeat cherry-picked quotes or outright fabrications in order to distort the religious views of the Founders. Another favorite target is the notion of separation between Church and State: the Religious Right has spent the past few decades trying to manufacture a historical-legal account on which (1) when the Founders wrote the First Amendment, they did not intend for it to enact anything like what we now call separation between Church and State, and (2) that this notion, completely alien to the Constitution, was invented by activist judges. Here, for example, is a typical presentation of the doctrine, by Stephen Erwin in The Rule of Law (2004-01-12):

Judge Moore held in his Eleventh Circuit Court appeal that the First Amendment bans any law respecting (regarding) an establishment of religion. The judge correctly points out that because of its no law language, the First Amendment proscribes only laws and his monument was not a law. The Eleventh Circuit totally failed to provide a reasonable explanation of how or why his position was wrong. Their only answer was to say that precedent (state decisis) requires separation of church and state and to express horror that if we adopted his position, the Chief Justice would be free to adorn the walls of the Alabama Supreme Court’s courtroom with sectarian religious murals and have decidedly religious quotations painted above the bench. Every government building could be topped with a cross, or a menorah, or a statue of Buddha, depending upon the views of the officials with authority over the premises. A crèche could occupy the place of honor in the lobby or rotunda of every municipal, county, state, and federal building.

These judges have completely forgotten that an independent and impartial judge is bound to interpret the law and let the legislature correct any problems that may result from a fair interpretation of that law. Political correctness is simply not within the official purview of our courts.

The separation of church and state is a concept that is not found anywhere in the Constitution. It is just one of many red t-shirts invented by our courts. And as long as we allow our imperial judiciary to ban red t-shirts there will be no legitimate rule of law.

Now, let’s set aside for a moment the non sequitur involved in the argument that the actions of a government employee funded by legislatively-appropriated tax dollars somehow sidestep the First Amendment’s concern with the laws passed by the legislature. There’s an argument to be had about the specifics of Roy Moore’s case, but that’s an argument I’ve already had elsewhere. What I want to focus on here is the historical-legal story underlying its application to the specific case; and for a Religious Rightist wanting to push some theocratic public display or another, it is a handy little historical-legal story indeed. For one, it allows the Rightist to construct a poignant tale of historical decline from our lofty origins. For two, it lets the myth-makers get into their favorite pose as myth-busters; many people do seem to be under the mistaken impression that the phrase separation between Church and State appears in the First Amendment, and the Religious Rightist can point out that it doesn’t. Finally, it their Constitutional prooftexting allows them to ascribe the last few decades of First Amendment case law entirely to the malign influence of Activist Judges, the most devious fiends in the Religious Right demonology. The problem is that the story is false on several points and deceptively selective on others.

Now, Erwin and other conservative Christians are right to point out that separation between Church and State is a phrase that does not appear anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, and never has. This is what the First Amendment actually says:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

What exactly mak[ing] no law respecting an establishment of religion means might not be entirely clear at first glance. One way to cash it out would be separation between Church and State. But that’s not necessarily the only possible interpretation of the text, and the Religious Rightist is right to want to know where this principle was introduced from, if judges are going to go around using it in their legal reasoning. But the problem is that, contrary to the claims of Erwin and other conservative Christians, the principle does not originate from some activist judge toiling to undo our national piety in the middle of the 20th century. The phrase comes from no less an authority on the founding documents than Thomas Jefferson, who explicitly offered it as his understanding of the First Amendment’s provisions in a letter to Danbury Baptist Church in 1802:

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.

–Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptists, 1 January 1802

(As a historical side-note, Jefferson’s letter was meant to reassure the Danbury Baptists that the Federal government had no power to regulate religious expression; the Baptists in America during the Founding generation were among the leading crusaders for complete separation of Church and State. Oh how things change in this fallen world!)

Of course, it’s true that Jefferson was not the author of the First Amendment. That’s true; but he did coin the phrase specifically to explain what he understood the First Amendment to mean. And it would be hard to say that Jefferson was not in at least as good, or better, of a position to know what the people who did write the First Amendment (including friends and colleagues such as James Madison) meant by it than Stephen Erwin, ex-Chief Justice Roy Moore, and others who decry the separation doctrine are. Furthermore, Jefferson was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which the establishment clause and the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment were derived from. Whatever the merits or demerits of judicial activism may be, the wall of separation is not an example of it; it is a gloss of the First Amendment first introduced by one of the most prominent of the Founders, who was in a very good position to claim some authority on what the proper meaning of the First Amendment was.

Now there’s a second line of attack that some Religious Rightists have pushed (Alan Keyes, in particular), with a bit more justice: some have pointed out that the First Amendment explicitly restricts only Congress (meaning the Congress of the United States); and that even if the First Amendment did impose a wall of separation between Church and State in the federal government, it was not understood, by Jefferson or anyone else at the time, to have anything to say about how state governments could conduct their affairs. Yet most of the modern applications of the separation doctrine are rulings on state governments–e.g. on state laws requiring prayer in government schools or on the actions of state judges such as ex-Chief Justice Roy Moore. So how does the modern legal doctrine of separation relate at all to what Jefferson meant by the phrase?

Now let’s be straight: the fundamentalists are right that when the First Amendment was written, it was understood to constrain only the federal government. State governments were widely understood to have the right to establish churches and pass laws restricting the free exercise of religion. (Congregationalist Massachussetts, for example, had an established church from the adoption of the Constitution up to 1833.) But so what? For one, the much-lamented activist judges do not, and very obviously do not, enforce the separation doctrine on the states on the basis of the First Amendment alone. The legal reasoning behind decisions such as Engel v. Vitale was based on the First Amendment together with the Fourteenth Amendment, which says (among other things):

Amendment XIV

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

One plausible reading of the emphasized portion is that the Fourteenth Amendment extends the protections granted to citizens of the United States in the Bill of Rights to include protection from violations by state as well as the federal government. Maybe that reading of the Fourteenth Amendment is inaccurate; but if the Religious Right wants to make that claim they are going to have to give some substantive argument against it, rather than deceptively pointing to the text of the First Amendment, as if that were the only part of the Constitution in question.

In any case, whether the incorporation doctrine is a good reading of the Fourteenth Amendment or not, there is another point on which the Religious Rightists’ arguments here are deceptive. It’s true that Jefferson and his compatriots only understood the First Amendment to constrain the federal government. But the package-dealed suggestion that they didn’t have any problem with state-level breaches of the wall of separation is plainly false. Jefferson may have believed that the First Amendment only imposed a wall of separation between the church and the federal government, but that does not mean that he didn’t think that the same separation shouldn’t be effected elsewhere. Jefferson, for example, drafted the state law that disestablished the Anglican Church in Virginia and James Madison ensured that it would be passed by the state legislature. Several other states also disestablished their churches around the time of the Revolution; even the late hold-outs such as Massachussetts eventually concluded that separation was a doctrine whose time had come, and had eliminated the last vestiges of established churches in America by the early 19th century. Jefferson did not think that the wall of separation between Church and State was a merely legal principle; he and many of his fellow Founders thought it was a moral principle that ought to apply to every level of government whatever, and they actively campaigned to get it so applied. As he eloquently put it in the Virginia Statute:

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry;

And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.

Amen, brother.

The separation between Church and State was not a bit of judicial hokum cooked up in the head of some activist judge somewhere around 1962. The Founders really did intend for there to be a wall of separation between Church and State, and they did what they could to put the masonry up. Jefferson was wrong about many things in his life, but he was right about this.

17 replies to The Founders really did intend for there to be a wall of separation between Church and State Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Sergio Méndez

    Hi Charles:

    I have little to add to your excellent post debunking the rhetoric of the religious right. But there is a part of the argument you miss, made usually by the more sophisticated neoconservatives, like Richard Nehaus. They indeed claim that the founding fathers established a clause to protect the freedom of religion . But they use the old semantic trick of pointing that it was freedom OF and not FROM religion (which is very silly, cause freedom of religion implies the freedom to not chose any religion). And then they point that if there was indeed a separation of Chuch and State (and they try to put down Jefferson all the time), it was meant to protect religion from the state and not vice versa. Which is utterly absurd too, cause who protects citizens if the state uses religion to coerce them?

  2. Otto M. Kerner

    Interesting article, Charles. I do think that one could make the argument that, if the 14th Amendment incorporates anything from the bill of rights, the 1st Amendment is not to be included, because it is the only one that specifically restricts Congress rather than just saying “make no law”, etc. Of course, it would be better if it were incorporated, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.

    I wonder if you have a take on the arguments by Thomas E. Woods, Gene Healy, and others that the 14th amendment was never legitimately ratified and thus it is not really part of the constitution at all?

  3. Philip Williams

    I hope to God that one day people will understand that Christians are not the enemy. I want seperation of the state from the church not the other way around or both. Think of the reasoning behind Mr. Jefferson’s letter to the church above. When we left England, we were not allowed to worship in which ways seemed best to us. We followed a religion developed by the “state” or government. Government regulated our religion.

    So, when Mr. Jefferson spoke of this “seperation”, he most likely literally meant that he desired no governmental control over what and where to worship. I agree with his sentiments. I do, however, believe that if there are enough American voters to get out and change laws through elections, pickets, and numbers, then we should and also have every God given and Constitutional right to, even if the laws are for Christian efforts. God bless America.

  4. Gabriel Mihalache

    Excellent entry! Can you make the same case for the separation of State and Economics, as an extension of property rights, individual sovereignty and so on?

  5. David Dangelo

    You left one thing out that has a Huge impact on the interpretation of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, that is how and why he selected the phrase thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Jefferson wanted to remove all fears that the state would make dictates to the church. He was establishing common ground with the Baptists by borrowing the words of Roger Williams, one of the Baptist’s own prominent preachers. Williams had said:

    When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day. And that there fore if He will eer please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world.

    The wall was understood as one-directional; its purpose was to protect the church from the state. The world was not to corrupt the church, yet the church was free to teach the people Biblical values.

    As to your comments regarding the VIRGINIA STATUTE FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, all that is saying is that there is not to be a state sponsored religion. It is clear that it is not limiting religion. In fact, a key phrase from the document is but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

  6. Sergio Méndez


    Regarding all that stuff concerning the unidirectional character of the wall between church and state, I don’t see how it follows logically. You can’t have a wall that separates the church from the state and not viceversa (cause a wall separates equally objects at both sides of it). More specially cause the State usually–and that goes especially for the colonial times- repressed freedom of religion, in the name of another established religion (that is why Baptists, and also Catholics in the US, supported the separation until very recently–to avoid the establishment of another church that will suppress their faith, as it happened in the colonial times).

    Now, I don’t know why you seem to interpret the idea of separation of church and state (as conceived by liberalism) as a “limitation of the church or religion”. Of course, everyone is free to practice their beliefs; that hardly means that you have the right to impose it on others using the state. And that is exactly what people like Charles and I mean when we refer to the separation of church and state. If you think the church needs the state to impose itself, and any attempt to avoid such an event is a way to weaken religion, then you have a very unfair understanding of what weakening religion means.

· July 2005 ·

  1. Clay jenkins

    The “wall of separation.” This is annoying to a lot of people and very upsetting. The Framers did not want a government religion. They did not want what they had in England, where everybody is taxed to support that religion and has to be a member of that religion or they’re punished, and so we’ve reached the point now where it’s been twisted and turned to mean what? If I don’t like what’s on public land and it bothers me, then I have a constitutional right to sue and get an ACLU lawyer and have it removed. Well, that’s not what the Constitution says. So where does this “wall-of-separation” language come from? It doesn’t come from Thomas Jefferson. It comes from Hugo Black, in a 1947 in the Everson decision. Now, who’s Hugo Black? Hugo Black was appointed Justice by FDR. Before that he was a senator. Before that he was for a couple years an active member of the Klan, and after he became an active member of the Klan, he was a lawyer, a very good lawyer for some Klan members who committed very violent acts, including one who killed a Catholic priest. Now, when he came on the court, I don’t know that he lost all those viewpoints, but in this particular decision involving public monies that incidentally would go to Catholic school children to help transport them to school, Black sneaked this language into the decision: wall of separation, strict wall of separation. Now, that’s not in the Constitution. That’s nowhere in the Constitution. Black put it in the Constitution — excuse me — put it in this decision. So now when all you Liberals are running around saying, you know, “separation of church and state,” Your not quoting Thaomas Jefferson but Hugo Black, the former Klansman!

— 2006 —

  1. FridaySlice

    Clay Jenkins wrote:

    So where does this wall-of-separation language come from? It doesn’t come from Thomas Jefferson. It comes from Hugo Black, in a 1947 in the Everson decision.

    I comment: Isn’t it the concept, not the words that name it, that is important?

    Dear Sergio Mendez

    The ultimate purpose of James Madison’s principle of no government authority over the duty we owe to the Creator (To which the American people had attached the name Separation of Church and State long before 1947) was to ensure that no man was hindered in any way whatsoever from fulfilling the obligations that God imposed upon him. The same reasoning that forbids the use of government force (coercive authority) to influence a man in religious matters, also forbids the use of non-coercive (advisory authority) to influence a man’s sentiments regarding religion.

    When the First U. S. Congress (1789-1791), that framed the First Amendment, enacted An Act To Regulate Processes In The Courts Of The United States (1789) to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States, it did not include a provision for the display of the Ten Commandments in Federal Court Houses. The idea of a government issuing religious advice was abhorrent to them.

    Dear Phillip Williams:

    What exactly are laws for Christian efforts?

    Dear David Dangelo:

    You wrote:

    You left one thing out that has a Huge impact on the interpretation of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, that is how and why he selected the phrase thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Jefferson wanted to remove all fears that the state would make dictates to the church. He was establishing common ground with the Baptists by borrowing the words of Roger Williams, one of the Baptist’s own prominent preachers.

    I reply:

    Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist had been fighting upon common ground for over twenty-five years. That common ground was what the Baptist called Soul Liberty; and what Jefferson referred to as Separation of Church and State.


    Friday Slice

  2. Roderick T. Long

    On the question of what Jefferson, at least, wanted, it’s worth consulting both his Notes on the State of Virginia, where he said “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” and his actual practice as President, where he refused to follow the practice of declaring days of thanksgiving, for reasons he explained as follows: “Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.” Sure sounds like he was just as concerned about freedom-from as he was about freedom-of.

  3. Rad Geek


    I wonder if you have a take on the arguments by Thomas E. Woods, Gene Healy, and others that the 14th amendment was never legitimately ratified and thus it is not really part of the constitution at all?

    Well, as you may have gathered from more recent posts, I don’t think that anything in the Constitution was ever legitimately ratified, and so I just don’t care very much about this sort of legalistic argument. (I consider it to be about as enlightening and productive as the sort of magical thinking that legalistic tax protesters engage in. That is, not at all.)

    That said, it’s clear that there was plenty of chicanery involved in the ratification process, but I think that Healy and Woods’s case is pretty weak on own internal logic. The rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment by the former Confederate states would only be relevant to the Article V amendment process if the former Confederate states were states of the Union. But if you’re going to support the idea that there is a constitutional right of secession, then the former Confederate states no longer were states of the Union, but rather conquered foreign provinces being given terms for admission. That former Confederate states would have to accept the Fourteenth Amendment to be admitted into the Union is, in that case, no more or less absurd than that any other territory would have to accept the Fourteenth Amendment, along with the rest of the Constitution, to be admitted into the Union as a new state. (This carries the irony that the pro-Dixie side seems to have stronger reasons to accept the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment than the pro-Union side. Some of the hardline Reconstructionists advocated the argument I’m outlining, though.) The argument that the Amendment was not ratified because Oregon, New Jersey, and Ohio later rescinded their ratification logically requires the idea that ratification can be rescinded once approved–but Article V is simply silent on that procedural question, so the ipsissima verba just don’t seem to offer much guidance one way or the other.

    In any case, there’s also very little good reason to think that Article V could effectively constrain whatever form of original adoption is supposed to have authorized the original articles of the Constitution to set their own terms for ratification, anyway. (After all, the articles of the Constitution weren’t adopted according to the rules laid down for amendments to the Articles of Confederation. But so what?)

    That’s the brief. Fuller argumentation would take more space and time than, frankly, I think the topic is probably worth.


    So where does this wall-of-separation language come from? It doesn’t come from Thomas Jefferson. It comes from Hugo Black, in a 1947 in the Everson decision.

    This is a bizarre and wilful misrepresentation of the facts. Those very words come from Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, which I quoted for you above. Black was quoting Jefferson’s interpretation of the meaning of the First Amendment.

    Madison, incidentally, used markedly similar language to describe his understanding of the matter; here are some examples:

    The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State (Letter to Robert Walsh, Mar. 2, 1819).

    Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history. (Detached Memoranda, ca. 1817)

    Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together. (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)

    To the Baptist Churches on Neal’s Greek on Black Creek, North Carolina

    I have received, fellow-citizens, your address, approving my objection to the Bill containing a grant of public land to the Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House, Mississippi Territory. Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself. (Letter to Baptist Churches in North Carolina, June 3, 1811)

    The idea of church-state separation just was not made up by a cabal of Liberal Judicial Activists in the middle of the 20th century. Sorry.

  4. Tad Cheller

    All Or None, The Government(Federal or State) Needs To Make Their Mind up And Have Either Full “Seperation Between Church and State,” or None At All, because the way thigs are now, it’s just not working. Everyone in life is going to get offended by somethig, weither it be a religous matter or not. Who ever it may be, myself included, needs to voice their opinion, get over it and move on.

  5. Roderick T. Long

    If we abolish the state, the problem of separation between church and state is thereby resolved.

  6. Chris

    Immediately after the First Amendment was written, and until this day, sessions of Congress have been opened by invocations and prayers. Our presidents and governors have been inaugurated with overt religious sentiments, and the phrase “so help me God” is now cliché. If Thomas Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and the other venerated and infallible “founders” had no issue with the benign use of religion in these contexts, then perhaps our modern conception of the impregnable wall between church and state is not the concept codified in the First Amendment.

    The country is full of symbols and traditions, and the invocation of God in such slight and harmless instances as “under God” and “in God we trust” is such an example. Hell, we even have a pair of fasces adorning the wall of the House. If Americans had any clue what fasces were, many wouldn’t care, but many would be highly offended. The latter would be clamouring for their removal and replacement by rainbow-colored smiley faces or something. But the fasces are symbols of historical importance, and we placed them on our government buildings long before 20th century fascism was ever conceived, so we keep them. They’re traditional. “God” is a tradition, and invocations are only offensive to those who are looking to be offended. After all, saying “in God we trust” is a far cry from the president telling us: “Believe in Christ our saviour or you will burn in hell … after you’re executed in prison for heresy.”

    That said, who gives a flying damn what Thomas Jefferson or anyone else thought 230 years ago? (Other than because of an historical importance, that is.) Thomas Jefferson does not govern us. It is not his country any longer; it is ours, and we may make whatever laws we please. We owe the founders respect, thanks, and reverence — not deference.

  7. Rad Geek


    Like Roderick, I am an anarchist. I don’t think there should be any State for Church to be separate or not separate from, and I don’t accept the moral or political authority of the Constitution in whole or in part. So this discussion of Jefferson, the separation of Church and State, and the First Amendment, is strictly a matter of historical curiosity on my part.

    If, however, you do accept the authority of the Constitution, then consistency would oblige you to care about what the First Amendment means or does not mean, as a practical matter of law, since accepting the legitimacy of the Constitution means accepting that we (i.e., our present government) may not just make any old laws we please, but rather only those laws licensed by the enumerated powers of the Constitution and not prohibited by the explicit restraints on government power placed in the Constitution.

    If you don’t accept the legitimacy of the Constitution, well then, welcome, comrade. But then, without the Constitution, the so-called legislature has no claim to any political authority at all, and so is not going to get very far in the making of laws.

    If Thomas Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and the other venerated and infallible founders had no issue with the benign use of religion in these contexts, then perhaps our modern conception of the impregnable wall between church and state is not the concept codified in the First Amendment.

    But Chris, Madison did have an issue with the employment of chaplains and the holding of prayers at the opening of Congressional sessions:

    Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?

    In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.

    The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: …

    James Madison, Detached Memoranda

    As mentioned above, Madison also, like Jefferson, repeatedly referred to the concept of a separation between church and state in his writings on the First Amendment and religious freedom.

    “God” is a tradition, and invocations are only offensive to those who are looking to be offended.

    This is, or ought to be, offensive to Christians, let alone to infidels like myself. If you’re a Christian, God is not a tradition but rather a person, and using Him as an empty cultural placeholder for the purposes of civic religion is as crude a blasphemy as you could come up with (My Kingdom is not of this world…). In any case, though, the issue is not who may or may not be offended, but rather that it’s fundamentally immoral to force someone to financially support a religion contrary to her own belief and conscience. Invocations of the Christian religion, or any other religion, in tax-funded government venues violate this principle, whether or not anyone finds them particularly offensive, or cares enough about them to make a big fuss. Even very small ones like the ones that you mention. If you want to go around asking God’s blessing on the government, the tax-collectors, the money, or whatever you please, I think you have probably misunderstood Christian doctrine, but you’re free to do so on your own time and on your own dime. You may not, however, coerce me into observing or paying for it.

  8. Fred Flas

    Deare Chris:

    Please post some evidence to support the claim that: “Immediately after the First Amendment was written, and until this day, sessions of Congress have been opened by invocations and prayers.”

    The official records of the First U. S. Congress do not contain any evidence whatsoever that any daily session of the House or Senate was opened with invocations and/or prayers.

  9. FridaySlice

    The Separation of Church and State (in 300 Words or Less)

    The U. S. Constitution of 1787 is one of enumerated and limited powers; and excludes religion from the grant of authorities and powers to the general government. The First Amendment is rather ambiguous. The word religion is not defined and the term “an establishment of religion” was novel in 1789.

    The ambiguity was resolved, during the first 50 years of the republic, in favor of the Perfect Separation of Church and State as generally articulated by the Jeffersonian Republicans and particularly as articulated by James Madison; as is evidenced by the fact that every major political dispute over the meaning of the religion clauses was decided in favor of James Madison’s view of religious liberty; which was that religion is the duty which we owe to our Creator and is exempt from the cognizance of the government.

    During the early years of the republic, Congress never made God the object of human legislation by making laws respecting an establishment of the people’s duty to trust in God or to affirm a belief that the nation is under God. The Federal Government did not recommend or advise the people to read, reflect on and obey the religious commandments that God wrote and imposed on the Children of Israel.

    The national government (after they found that it was not a wise practice) did not issue religious recommendation to the people. Congress, although it made a mistake by establishing Chaplains to Congress in 1789, did not compound its error; and on several occasions expressly rejected the argument that the civil establishments of the Chaplains to Congress were consistent with the religious liberty principles of the Constitution.

  10. Rad Geek


    The use of the phrase “Establishment” to refer to the special legal position of the Anglican church in England was widespread in the late 18th century, and not novel to the First Amendment. And I think you mean 300 words or fewer. But otherwise, right on.

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