Separation of church and state: learning from Jefferson

As Americans debate bills that would grant tuition tax credits to private schools and proposals for a constitutional amendment that would allow prayers in public schools, it is useful to consider the views of Thomas Jefferson about the relationship between government and religion.

Jefferson's most familiar quotation on the subject originated in a letter that he wrote as President in 1802 to Baptists in Danbury, Conn. Religion, he said, was ''solely between man and God,'' and ''I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state.''

The letter did not represent just a political courtesy. Before sending it, Jefferson had it examined by Attorney General Levi Lincoln and expressed the hope that such a statement might sow ''useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.''

When Jefferson wrote the Danbury letter, he was no novice as a theorist on the relationship between church and state. Earlier in Virginia he and James Madison had waged a 10-year battle to get approval of Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. In 1779 at Williamsburg, Patrick Henry with the backing of George Washington had introduced a bill that said that the state should encourage religion and stipulate that Christianity would be the established religion. Henry tried to buy off dissenters by including them in the establishment and by giving tax proceeds to each denomination.

Jefferson countered with his plan that asked for complete separation of religion from government, stating that religion was a private, voluntary matter and that the civil power should neither support nor restrain religious commitment. The deadlock was not broken until 1785 when Jefferson won what he described as the most severe struggle of his life. As an achievement, he ranked being author of the Bill for Establishment of Religious Freedom with that of being the writer of the Declaration of Independence.

As President, Jefferson acted strictly on the principles of his bill. Contrary to the practice of both Washington and Adams, he refused to assign any day for national prayer, fasting, or thanksgiving. He believed that such designations violated the First Amendment by pointing to an establishment of religion. He was convinced that the president had no authority even to encourage religious exercises.

In educational matters, too, he maintained his principles of separation with only a few inconsistencies. Jefferson could be a pragmatic politician, and he frequently was under attack from religious leaders. At one time he advocated the use of state funds for a graduate school of theology, but, after the failure of the plan, he never renewed the proposal. A bill of his that would have abolished the school of theology at William and Mary had failed because of Episcopal opposition.

At another time he recommended that a room at the University of Virginia be used for worship, but in actuality he repeatedly denied the use of university facilities for religious purposes. In 1825 when rejecting a proposal for Sunday services on university property, he said that the buildings were erected by the state for purposes of the university and not for other uses. The university did not have a chaplain or a professor of religion, and, at a time when most colleges and universities had a clergyman president and required regular participation in religious services, Jefferson's school was practicing his principles of separation.

Jefferson's thoughts about primary and secondary education are suggested by a 1778 bill of his that aimed to establish a comprehensive educational program. No provision was made for religious instruction, despite such instruction being common elsewhere. And another bill that he promoted in 1817 likewise set forth only secular subjects, prescribed that ministers should not be allowed to serve as supervisors, and stated that ''no religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced'' in violation of the teachings of any sect or denomination.

Jefferson's secular conception of the state was not motivated by hostility toward religion. Although not an orthodox Christian, he nevertheless was a man of deep religious conviction. He simply was convinced that religion was a matter of conscience that ought to be neither supported nor restrained by civil government.

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