In Jefferson's Words

The Founding Fathers have a way of stepping into contemporary political debates. Among the latest to do so is the globally admired Thomas Jefferson, whose words on "the wall of separation between church and state" were recently given a new, unproven interpretation.

The interpreter, James Hutson, chief of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress, argued that Jefferson's familiar words had been deprived of context over the years. The famous "wall" reference came in a letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association. Mr. Hutson suggests the letter was political in purpose, gauged to appeal to New England religious sensitivities.

That implies its phrases were never intended to stand as pillars of constitutional wisdom. But Jefferson's ringing words on church-state separation have long had that solidity, being cited in Supreme Court decisions over the decades. Such use of the "wall" metaphor has had its critics, who argue the phrase was extra-constitutional and overdrew the line between religious and political life.

That analysis appeals to those who favor such policies as prayer in the public schools and government-issued vouchers to pay for religious school education. They welcome a crack in Jefferson's wall.

Now a phalanx of competing scholars, rallied by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has taken issue with Hutson's interpretation. They contend, persuasively we think, that the letter to the Danbury group was clearly intended to lay down fundamental democratic theory, not just assuage political sensitivities.

The debate may go on for a while. For ourselves, however, the First Amendment's establishment and free exercise clauses remain good brick and mortar. Religion does have a central place in American public life, without question. But that place doesn't extend to the use of public funds for religious education, or the imposition of state-chosen prayers in a religiously diverse public classroom. We suspect Mr. Jefferson would agree.

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