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.

Article One of our Bill of Rights declares: “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.”

Among the most egregious examples of judicial activism undermining our Constitution are the many flawed rulings rendered in regard to Article One (the First Amendment) of the Bill of Rights, particularly to its assurance of religious freedom. Once again, in plain language, the First Amendment stipulates, “Congress shall make no law…”

But activist courts have ruled that this prohibition applies to virtually every public forum, from public schools and sporting events to public squares.

There is no more ominous assault on the Liberty enshrined in our Constitution, no more serious threat to Liberty as “endowed by [our] Creator,” than the grossly errant notion that any vestige of religion must be eradicated from all levels of government and by extension, anything funded by government, federal, state or local. To the extent that knowledge of our Creator (at one time prevalent in every educational institution) is eradicated, then the historically critical foundational principle that the inherent right to Liberty is endowed by God, not man, will be undermined, and thus become subject to the rule of men.

Our Founders’ First Amendment intent was that the central government would not favor one religious denomination over others by act of Congress. “Congress shall make no law…” It is precisely that which Thomas Jefferson referenced when noting the Constitution built “a wall of separation between church and State” — and nothing more.

But for decades, judicial activists have “interpreted” the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause” to suit their political agendas, placing severe constraints upon the free exercise of religion by invoking Thomas Jefferson’s once-obscure but now wholly misrepresented “wall of separation” metaphor.

Advocates of the “living constitution” are intent upon removing faith from every public quarter, erroneously citing Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists Association in Connecticut.

At that time, Jefferson rightly supported the disestablishment of the Anglican Church as the official religion in Virginia. Baptists hoped he would similarly affirm the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut. Moreover, Baptists feared the national government would declare Anglicanism the national church, much as the Crown recognized the Church of England as its official church. Recognition of state-backed religions led to discrimination against those who were not adherents of the official church.

Responding to the Baptists about their concerns, 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.” (Notably, two days after writing that letter, Jefferson attended religious services in the House of Representatives.)

Jefferson’s letter reaffirmed the Bill of Rights’ barrier between federal and state governments, as well as the prohibition against Congress making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” His “separation” language most certainly did not create a prohibition against faith expression in public venues. Yet those limitations are how the courts interpret it today. 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 educational institutions. Over time, belief in a sovereign God and His endowment of Liberty and other unalienable Rights of Man falls to the wayside.

Recall that this same Thomas Jefferson also proclaimed: “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.”

Indeed, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are the Natural Rights of Man. They are gifts “endowed by our Creator,” not government. And yet “progressive” politicians and judicial activists would have us believe otherwise.

It was with firm regard for the Rights of Mankind that our Constitution was written and ratified “in order to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” As such, it established a constitutional Republic whose foundation was law based on Natural Rights, not rights allocated by governments or by those in positions of power.

“Our political way of life,” John Quincy Adams wrote, “is by the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, and of course presupposes the existence of God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and government.”

George Mason declared, “The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.”

Notably, the conviction that our rights are innately bestowed by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” is enumerated in the constitutional preambles of every state in our Union.

George Washington wrote in his 1796 Farewell Address: “Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

John Adams asserted, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Noted Supreme Court jurists have challenged the modern error of the “wall of separation” interpretations.

Justice William O. Douglas, an FDR nominee who served for 36 years, wrote in the majority decision of the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson: “The First Amendment does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of church and state… Otherwise the state and religion would be aliens to each other – hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly. … We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being… When the state encourages religious instruction…it follows the best of our traditions.” He concluded: “To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. … We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence… We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion.”

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger cited the Zorach v. Clauson opinion in 1984: “The concept of a ‘wall’ of separation between church and state is a…figure of speech… The Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. Anything less would require the ‘callous indifference’ that was never intended by the Establishment Clause… Indeed, we have observed, such hostility would bring us into ‘war with our national tradition as embodied in the First Amendment’s guaranty of the free exercise of religion.”

As the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared: “The 'wall of separation between church and State’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned. It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of Constitutional history… The establishment clause had been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly forty years… There is simply no historical foundation for the proposition that the framers intended to build a wall of separation… The recent court decisions are in no way based on either the language or intent of the framers… But the greatest injury of the ‘wall’ notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights.”

As President Ronald Reagan declared: “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.”