Separation of Church and State

I recently ran across a great article written by David Barton of WallBuilders. The article concerns the Separation of Church and State, and how activist judges are trying to circumvent the intent of our Founding Fathers.
After you read, I would also suggest that you visit David Barton’s website at

After 150 years of honoring Founders’ intent, activist judges took radical new direction
By: David Barton

Editor’s note: “The separation of church and state” – a phrase found nowhere in the Constitution or any other founding document – is a modern legal doctrine, an invention of 20th century courts based on a quote from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson.
David Barton, whose WallBuilders organization has exhaustively documented the Christian history of the United States, explains the origin of the “the separation of church and state” in America.

The First Amendment was never intended to separate Christian principles for government. Yet today, Americans constantly hear the First Amendment coupled with the phrase“separation of church and state.” The First Amendment simply states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Obviously, the words “Separation,” “church,” or “state” are not found in the First Amendment, nor in any other founding document.

Before the Founders approved the final wording, the First Amendment went through nearly a dozen different iterations and extensive discussions. Those discussions – recorded in the Congressional Record from June 7 through September 25 of 1789 – make clear their intent for the First Amendment. By it, the Founders were saying, essentially: We do not want in America what we had in Great Britain. We don’t want one denomination running the nation. We will not be Catholics, or Anglicans, or any other single denomination. We do want God’s principles, but we don’t want one denomination running the nation.

This intent was well understood, as evidenced by court rulings after the First Amendment. For example, a 1799 court declared: “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed on the same equal footing.”

Thomas Jefferson, to whom the now-popular phrase “separation of church and state” is attributed, also believed, as did the other Founders, that the First Amendment simply prevented the federal establishment of a single denomination – a fact he had made clear in a letter to Benjamin Rush. In that letter, Jefferson committed himself as a president to not allowing the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists or any other denomination to achieve what Jefferson called the “establishment of a particular form of Christianity.” So what is the source of Jefferson’s now infamous phrase?

On Nov. 7, 1801, the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., wrote Jefferson, concerned that the guarantee of the “free exercise of religion” appeared in the First Amendment. To them, this suggested that the right to religious exercise was a government-granted rather than a God-granted right, thus implying that someday the government might try to regulate religious expression. They believed that freedom of religion was a God-granted, unalienable right; and that the government should be powerless to restrict religious activities unless, as the Baptists explained, those activities caused someone to “work ill to his neighbor.”

Jefferson understood their concern. In his response he assured them that the free exercise of religion was indeed an unalienable right and would not be meddled with by the government. Jefferson pointed out to them that there was a “wall of separation between church and state” to ensure that the government would never interfere with religious activities.

Today, all that is heard of Jefferson’s letter is the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” without either the context or the explanation given in the letter, or its application by earlier courts.

The clear understanding of the First Amendment for a century-and-a-half was that it prohibited the establishment of a single national denomination. National policies and rulings in that century-and-a-half always reflected that interpretation.

For example, in 1853, a group petitioned Congress to separate Christian principles from government. They desired a so-called “separation of church and state” with chaplains being turned out of the Congress, the military, and other parts of government. Their petition was referred to the House and the Senate Judiciary Committees, which investigated for almost a year to see if it would be possible to separate Christian principles from government.

Both the House and the Senate Judiciary Committees returned with their reports. The following are excerpts from the Hose report delivered on March 27, 1854 (the Senate report was very similar):
“Had the people (the Founding Fathers), during the Revolution, had a
suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, the Revolution
would have been strangled in its cradle. At the time of the adoption
of the Constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was
that Christianity should be encouraged, but not any one sect (denomination)
….In this age, there is no substitute for Christianity….That was the
Religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain
The religion of their descendants.”

Two months later, the Judiciary Committee made this strong declaration:

“The great, vital, and conservative element in our system (the thing that
Holds the American system together) is the belief of our people in the
Pure doctrines and divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The committees explained that they would not separate these principles, for it was these principles and activities which had made America so successful – they had been the nation’s foundation, its basis.

During the 1870’s, 1880’s and 1890’s, yet another group that challenged specific Christian principles in government arrived before the Supreme Court. Jefferson’s letter had remained unused for years, for as time had progressed after its use in 1802 – and after no national denomination had been established – his letter had fallen into obscurity. But now – 75 years later – in the case of Reynolds v. United States, the plaintiffs resurrected Jefferson’s letter, hoping to use it to their advantage. In that case, the Court printed a lengthy segment of Jefferson’s letter and then used his letter on “separation of church and state” to again prove that it was permissible to maintain Christian values, principles and practices in official policy.

For the next 15 years during that legal controversy, the Supreme Court utilized Jefferson’s letter to ensure that Christian principles remained a part of government. Following this controversy, Jefferson’s letter again fell into disuse. It then remained silent for the next 70 years until 1947, when, in Everson v. Board of Education, the court, for the first time, did not cite Jefferson’s entire letter, but only selected eight words from it.

The court now announced: The First Amendment has erected “a wall of separation between church and state.” That wall must be kept high and impregnable.

This was a new philosophy for the court. Why would the court take Jefferson’s letter completely out of context and cite only eight of its words? Dr. William James, the “father of modern psychology” – and a strong opponent of religious principles in government and education – perhaps explained the court’s new strategy when he stated: “There is nothing so absurd but if you repeat it often enough people will believe it.”

This statement precisely describes the tack utilized by the court in the years following its 1947 announcement. The court began regularly to speak of a “separation of church and state,” as if to say: This is what the Founders wanted – separation of church and state; this is their great intent.

The court failed to quote the Founders; it just generically asserted that this is what the Founders wanted. The courts continued on this track so steadily that, in 1958, in a case called Baer v. Kolmorgen, one of the judges was tired of hearing the phrase and wrote a dissent warning that if the court did not stop talking about the “separation of church and state,” people were going to start thinking it was part of the Constitution! Nevertheless, the court continued to talk about separation until June 25, 1962, when in the case Engel v. Vitale, the court delivered its first ever ruling that completely departed Christian principles from education; the case struck down school prayer.

Even the World Book Encyclopedia’s 1963 Yearbook noted that this case was the first time there had been a separation of church and state in education. In that 1962 case, the court redefined the meaning and application of a single word: “church.” For 170 years prior to that case, the word “church” – as used in the phrase “separation of church and state” – was defined to mean “a federally established denomination.” However, in 1962 the court explained that the word “church” would now mean “a religious activity in public.” This was the turning point in the interpretation of the First Amendment.

Understand what the court had just announced: No longer would the First Amendment simply prohibit the establishment of a federal denomination; it now would prohibit religious activities in public settings. This current doctrine of separation is a brand new doctrine; it is not something from the Founding Fathers, and it is not in any founding document. Even outside observers recognize this policy is a recent one. Yet notice how much has been relinquished in recent years under this new doctrine.

School prayer was the first casualty of the redefinition of the First Amendment in the 1962 Engel case. School prayer had never before been challenged; for, clearly, school prayer had never established a national denomination and therefore had always been acceptable. But under the new definition, school prayer definitely was a religious activity in public and was therefore now deemed to be unconstitutional.

That 1962 case that first redefined the First Amendment and then removed school prayer was notable in a number of aspects. Recall that the 1892 Supreme Court case offered 87 precedents to maintain the inclusion of Christian principles in our laws and institutions. This 1962 case which removed school prayer was just the opposite; it was the first case in court history to use zero precedents – the court quoted zero previous legal cases.

Without any historical or legal base, the court simply made an announcement: We’ll not have prayers in schools anymore; that violates the Constitution.

A brand new direction was taken in America. Within a 12-month period of time, in two more cases in 1963, the court had removed not only prayer, but also Bible reading, religious classes and religious instruction. This was a radical reversal.

The preceding was excerpted with permission from David Barton’s “America’s Godly Heritage.” David Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, on the Web at

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