A battle is raging in Texas over our children’s minds. One of the focal points is the “wall of separation” between church and state. It’s a wall based on a false assumption, one that has distorted religious freedom in this country.
The Texas Board of Education must approve textbooks taught in Texan public schools. Its members are the gatekeepers who determine whether a textbook meets curriculum requirements. That board recently met to approve the next generation of books.
But as goes Texas, so goes the nation, because Texan standards are then adopted for textbooks sold all over America. So publishers take drafts to Texas for consultation and approval, making changes as necessary.
One of the changes that conservatives are pushing is for these textbooks to include a discussion of the “wall of separation between church and state.” More specifically, they are pushing for a discussion of what the Founding Fathers thought of this wall.
That is a worthwhile classroom discussion, because the Founding Fathers never created such a wall. That’s why it’s not mentioned in the Constitution.
On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, in response to their congratulations upon his winning the presidency. In it, Jefferson referred to a “wall of separation between church and state.” He wrote this in the context of perceived threats the Baptists felt were coming from the state, not the other way around.
After writing that letter, Jefferson went on attending church, at services held in the House chamber of the U.S. Congress. (On Sundays, the Capitol was a church building.) He also went on to approve legislation for the federal government to undertake the construction of churches in the frontier regions, and helping pay pastors to preach in these churches, to carry the Christian faith to the native peoples there.
Clearly, what Jefferson was describing was not a rigid barrier between faith and public policy, but denominational allegiance by the state. As the Constitution says, the federal government was not to “establish religion,” that is, to select a particular denomination as a national church.
That’s all the wall is. And Jefferson was among the most secular of the Founding Fathers, who did not believe in miracles, such as the virgin birth or resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The wall of separation nowhere appears in American law until the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court considered whether a New Jersey law allowing school districts to arrange daily transportation for children to religious schools was constitutional. Although declaring the wall, the Court went on to say that school boards expending public funds getting students to and from religious schools wasn’t unconstitutional–such accommodations were fine.
Later in 1952, the Supreme Court clarified itself in Zorach v. Clauson, saying Americans, “are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being …. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities … it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.”
But in recent decades, this wall has become a hammer used to bludgeon people of faith in a concerted effort to purge the public square of references to faith, silencing those who express faith in a public setting.
With the resurgent interest in the original meaning of the Constitution that began in the 1980s and continues today, using this “wall” as the basis for applying the First Amendment has increasingly been criticized.
One such example came from Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Writing in dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree while still an associate justice, Renhquist wrote, “It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of constitutional history, but unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years. Thomas Jefferson was, of course, in France at the time the… Bill of rights [was] passed in Congress and ratified by the states. His letter to the Danbury Baptist Association was a short note of courtesy, written 14 years after the Amendments were passed by Congress. He would seem to any detached observer as a less than ideal source of contemporary history as to the meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.”
America got along just fine without this wall for 158 years, and even afterwards. It’s only been in recent years that it has been twisted into a secularizing influence in our society.
These are historical facts. Children should be taught facts in history class.
Ken Klukowski is special counsel with the Family Research Council and coauthor of the bestselling book The Blueprint: Obama’s Plan to Subvert the Constitution and Build an Imperial Presidency.