By: Charles Sumner Re: Myth 2 MYTH 2: Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptis

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

By: Charles Sumner Re: Myth 2 MYTH 2: Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists was a mere courtesy and should not be regarded as important. Religious Right activists have tried for decades to make light of Jefferson's "wall of separation" response to the Danbury Baptists, attempting to dismiss it as a hastily written note designed to win the favor of a political constituency. But a glance at the history surrounding the letter shows they are simply wrong. As church-state scholar Pfeffer points out, Jefferson clearly saw the letter as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement on church and state. Before sending the missive, Jefferson had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general. Jefferson told Lincoln he viewed the response as a way of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets." At the time he wrote the letter, Jefferson was under fire from conservative religious elements who hated his strong stand for full religious liberty. Jefferson saw his response to the Danbury Baptists as an opportunity to clear up his views on church and state. Far from being a mere courtesy, the letter represented a summary of Jefferson's thinking on the purpose and effect of the First Amendment's religion clauses. Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision the high court said Jefferson's observations "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment." In the court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state.'" It is only in recent times that separation has come under attack by judges in the federal court system who oppose separation of church and state. (Some Religious Right propagandists have take to outright fabrications in order to refute the Jefferson metaphor. They sometimes claim that Jefferson described his wall as "one- directional," forbidding government intervention into religion, but allowing church intrusion into government. In fact, Jefferson used no such language, as the text of the Danbury letterattests.) Provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 8120 Fenton Street, Silver Spring MD 20910; 301-589-3707. * Origin: The FROG Pond * Rochester, NY USA! (1:2613/270.0)


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank