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Vail Valley Voices: What Jefferson said about church and state

Henry BornsteinVail, CO, Colorado

Editor’s note: Henry Bornstein, a retired attorney who handled constitutional cases and studies the Constitution from a historical as well as legal perspective, replies in several parts to a recent Valley Voices column by Dick Gustafson addressing the separation of church and state. This is the third.Dick Gustafson (and David Barton) are clearly wrong in their interpretation of the Danbury letter. The intent as well as the language of Jefferson’s comment was that each was to be protected from the other. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part prohibits the government from creating a state religion or promoting or favoring any particular religion. The second part permits the free exercise of any religion, or no religion, as each person so chooses. I refer you to the opening quote of this response. Madison wanted the proposed Constitution as well as the First Amendment to apply to all of the states, but soon realized that this would never happen. In Jefferson’s letter, he knew as did the Danbury Baptists Association, that Jefferson had no control whatsoever over any state imposed religion or practices, which most states had. Under the First Amendment, Jefferson could only exercise control over the actions of the national government. Despite their letter to Jefferson, the Danbury Baptists Association, recognized this legal and practical fact, also. The following quote explains this better than I can: “One of the biggest misconceptions promoted in religious right American history books is that Jefferson’s reply to the Baptists was a personal letter and/or a hastily scribbled note that he put little thought into. This is simply not true. The existing copy of the letter (in the Library of Congress) is actually Jefferson’s first draft, not the final letter. Just the fact that he wrote a first draft proves that this was not a hastily scribbled note. Jefferson then submitted his draft to two different New Englanders in his administration, Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts, requesting their opinions on how it would be received in their states. Obviously, Jefferson did not consider this a personal letter to the Baptist Association. He was well aware of the likelihood that such a letter would be made public, and did not want to offend any New England political allies. On the advice of Levi Lincoln, Jefferson deleted a paragraph explaining his refusal to proclaim days of thanksgiving, writing the following reason in the margin. : (This) ‘paragraph was omitted on the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings, etc., by their Executives is an antient habit & is respected.’ “A common question about Jefferson’s letter has to do with what government he was referring to. Was it the federal government or the state governments? The correct answer is both. In his letter, Jefferson described the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses as an ‘expression of the supreme will of the nation,’ clearly referring to the federal government. His next sentence, however, doesn’t make much sense unless he was referring to the ‘progress of those sentiments in the individual states, especially given the fact that he was replying to a letter regarding the lack of religious freedom in one particular state. He couldn’t have been referring to the ‘progress of those sentiments’ in the federal government because no progress was necessary there — the First Amendment had already taken care of that. While the federal government couldn’t do anything to speed up this progress in the states, Jefferson wrote that he would ‘see with sincere satisfaction the progress’ when it was made. (From: “Oh No! Not Another Article About Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists,” by Chris Rodda)In case Mr. Gustafson or anyone else who might read this has any doubt as to where Mr. Jefferson stood on the issue of separation, here are a few quotes of the dozens readily available:”(When) the (Virginia) bill for establishing religious freedom… was finally passed, … a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it should read ‘a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.’ The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.” –Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:67 “The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” –Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800. “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” –Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1813. ME 14:21 These statements all set forth the belief in the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state as a necessity to be able to possess this freedom.


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