Alexander's Column

The 'Wall of Separation' Myth

Mark Alexander · May 6, 2005
“The God who gave us life, gave us Liberty at the same time. … Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the People that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” –Thomas Jefferson

Does the Constitution provide a “wall of separation” between church and state?

The short answer is “yes,” but not as erroneously interpreted by judicial activists today.

Much to the vexation of the ACLU and their Leftist ilk, a group of religious leaders were invited to the East Room of the White House, and talked about the importance of prayer. Religious leaders have been high on the White House list of dignitary guests since our nation’s founding. Along with the President George Bush, these leaders prayed for our nation – and yes, the did so on government property.

In this enlightened era when progressive, free-thinking liberals insist on the removal of all religious references and symbols (Crosses, Ten Commandment monuments, etc.) from federal, state and local public places, how could the President of the United States impudently promoted the merits of prayer and encouraged all Americans to do the same.

But wait, it gets worse.

“We pray to give thanks for our freedom,” the President said. “Freedom is our birthright because the Creator wrote it into our common human nature. No government can ever take a gift from God away.” He then asserted that giving thanks to God is writ through and through upon American history, from Plymouth Rock to the Revolution and to this day. He reminded us that in our nation’s supreme founding document, the Declaration of Independence, “…our Founders … declared it a self-evident truth that our right to liberty comes from God.” Then, he concluded, “We pray to acknowledge our dependence on the Almighty [and] we who ask for God’s help for ourselves, [since we] have a particular obligation to care for the least of our brothers and sisters within our midst.”

How can he, and other elected leaders, get away with such a blatant breach of the “wall of separation” between church and state? Because, in short, there is no such doctrine supported in our Constitution or its superior guidance, our Declaration of Independence. In fact, the First Continental Congress called for national prayer.

President Bush’s adversaries, those aforementioned “enlightened liberals,” know that if they take him on, they will lose in both the national courts and the court of public opinion. After all, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of state legislatures to open their sessions with prayer (Marsh v Chambers, 1983), and liberals understand the extension of this ruling. They also understand that a vast majority of Americans honor God through prayer on a regular basis (though, unfortunately, many of them don’t vote because they have little faith in our politicians).

Thus, liberals choose much smaller targets, like the celebrated removal of a Ten Commandments monument from state grounds in Alabama, or removal of a memorial Cross from a city park above San Diego. They carefully choose targets in those venues where they have stacked the federal Circuit Courts with judicial activists who do their bidding – and that means most venues.

Nonetheless, inquiring minds want to know, doesn’t the Constitution ensure a “wall of separation” between church and state?

No.

Judicial activists have for decades “interpreted” the First Amendment “establishment clause” to suit their political agendas, placing severe constraints upon the free exercise of religion and invoking the obscure and wholly misrepresented “wall of separation” to expel religious practice from any and all public forums.

For many decades, those who advocate a so-called “living constitution” have used the despotic judiciary to remove faith from every public quarter, ironically and erroneously, citing Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor – words from his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists Association in Connecticut.

Unbeknown to many, the words “wall of separation between church and state” do not appear in our Constitution – nor is this notion implied. Thomas Jefferson penned those words in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in response to their concerns about the establishment of national and state churches.

Jefferson had advocated the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia, and the Baptists hoped he would affirm the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut, and moreover, that the national government would not declare Anglicanism the national church, much as the Crown recognized the Church of England as its official church. Such recognition led to discriminations against those who were not adherents of the official church.

Responding to the Baptists, Jefferson wrote, “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… I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”

His letter, in fact, reaffirmed the Bill of Rights barrier between federal and state governments, and the prohibition against Congress making any “law respecting an establishment of religion.” His “separation” most certainly did not create a prohibition against faith expression in any and all public venues, as the courts interpret it today.

There is ample evidence that Jefferson did not intend for that metaphor to become an iron curtain between church and state. American University professor Daniel Dreisbach and University of Chicago law professor Philip Hamburger argue, correctly, that the “wall of separation” has its ironic and erroneous origin in 1947. It was then in the case of Everson v. Board of Education that conservative Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in the majority opinion that the First Amendment created a “wall of separation” between religion and government at the state level.

Black unwittingly opened the door for Fourteenth Amendment application of the First Amendment to the states. By invoking the Establishment Clause, he set legal precedent, and you know the rest of the story. The Everson decision launched a new era of constitutional interpretation by judicial activists, creating precedent to remove prayer and virtually all reference to religion from state and local public forums.

This fundamental violation of federalist principle has become central to numerous judicial challenges to religious Liberty. Of such judicial diktats, Thomas Jefferson warned, “The Constitution [will become] a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary which they may twist and shape into any form they please.”

Indeed, it has become just that.

As for that utterly phony “wall of separation,” Princeton scholar Stanley Katz says that correcting the “Jeffersonian myth” will have a “profound impact on the current law and politics of church and state.” Joining the debate, Justice Clarence Thomas argues, “This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.”

However, this issue is not merely about federalism and states’ rights. It is about the Rule of Law and the future of our Constitutional Republic.

The intended consequence of the contemporary artificial barrier between church and state is to remove references to our Creator from all public forums, particularly government education institutions, and thus, over time, to disabuse belief in a sovereign God and thus, His endowment of Liberty – the innate rights of man. This erosion of knowledge about the origin of our rights, the very foundation of our country and basis of our Declaration and Constitution, has dire implications for the future of Liberty.

As for the President’s call to prayer this week, he is fully aware of his nation’s heritage – and fully in tune with its heart. He understands this admonition from Founder George Washington: “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favors.”

Quote of the week…

“We pray as Americans have always prayed: with confidence in God’s purpose, with hope for the future, and with the humility to ask God’s help to do what is right.” –President George W. Bush

On cross-examination…

“To those who cite the First Amendment as reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions every day, I say: The First Amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.” –Ronald Reagan