Did “separation of church and state” originate with the Constitution?

The phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. It traces back to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802, in which he reassured the Baptists that their religious freedom would be protected. He was assuring them that the government would not interfere with them freely practicing their religion. His letter included: “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 and State. [Emphasis added.]

The Supreme Court has cited Jefferson’s letter in key cases it has decided. To read Jefferson’s letter:

Religion is discussed in the first amendment, which states:

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.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” is called the Establishment Clause.

Some have argued that this clause is only intended to prohibit the establishment of a single national religion or the preference of one religion over another. Others have argued that this clause prohibits the government from promoting religion in general as well as the preference of one religion over another.

Although the Supreme Court has issued various interpretations of this clause, it is likely that the majority of Supreme Court Justices will continue to rule that neutrality toward religion is the guiding principle, which means not favoring one religion over another and not favoring religion over non-religion and vice versa. For more information: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/rel_liberty/establishment/index.aspx\

“Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” is called the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to mean that the freedom to believe is absolute, but the ability to act on those beliefs is not, such as human sacrifice or polygamy is not allowed.

In 2000, President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which mandates standards for the free exercise of religion in land-use laws and to people institutionalized in prisons, hospitals and retirement or nursing home. For more information:

For more information about separation of church and state:


  1. Doug Indeap says:

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Indeed, the Court mentioned it only in passing after stating its conclusion based on a lengthy and detailed discussion (encompassing many pages and many footnotes) of the historical context in which the First Amendment was developed. The metaphor “separation of church and state” was but a handy catch phrase to describe the upshot of its conclusion.

    Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx

  2. joe Montgomery says:

    Words can be twisted to make any arguement valid. Problem is even Madison’s own words are overlooked. By their own account And reasearxh he said, quote

    “The Constitution of the Untied States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion”

    The founding father’s were well aware that the King of England used religion to keep the masses under control. He used the clergy to ensurethe compliance of the people
    The church was an arm of the government in that case. The founders knew that if government intruded on religion then the populace could be controlled. Remember. Thecolonies were founded specifically because of religious intolerence in England. Most of the colonies were very religious and the founders knew that government would use That if possible. The First amendment was drafted so that government wouldn’t use it against the people but also conversely so that religions wouldn’t unduly control the government. They tried to strike a balance that allowed relaigion but NOT as an arm of the government but as Alan entirely personal issue. There is no WALL enshrines in the constitution and even though there are some individuals such as Jefferson and Madison who had their personal beliefs, that is Just what they are personal beliefs. The record AS A WHOLE, needs looked at. There are more who voted to ratify the constitution other than just those two, as important as they are. To cherry pick personal comments after the fact without factoring in the debate over it is disingenuous to say the very least. At least tell the WHOLE TRUTH!

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