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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Freedom of Religion

In 1801, a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote President Jefferson a letter, complaining that, in their state, religious liberties for minority groups such as theirs were regarded as special privileges granted by the legislature, rather than constitutional rights due to all groups. Jefferson’s reply, penned on January 1, 1802, after discussion with colleagues from the northeast, contained a phrase that has been used by many to describe the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of religion:

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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association, January 1, 1802”

  • What phrase did Jefferson use to describe the prohibition against an established religion?
  • The U.S. Supreme Court used the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in a number of cases between 1947 and the 1970s. Why do you think the phrase became a popular way of encapsulating this aspect of religious freedom?
  • Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has backed away from the wall of separation metaphor. Why do you think this might be the case?

Create a timeline that highlights Establishment Clause issues from the era in which Jefferson wrote his letter to the Danbury Baptists to the present. Based on your timeline, what could you conclude about the enduring nature of issues related to the establishment of religion? How has our understanding of the Establishment Clause changed over time? Based on what you know about Jefferson, describe how he would react to a current issue related to the establishment of religion, such as the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.