The True Origin of “Separation of Church and State”
The doctrine of the strict “separation of church and state” has been very vigorously enforced in recent years by the federal and more recently by the state courts, and is being increasingly applied with respect to education. Courts continue to deny Christians the right to exercise any control over what their children are exposed to in the public schools, and even in private and home schools.
It is interesting to note the historical origin of the phrase “separation of church and state.” It is fairly well recognized that this language does not appear in the text of the Constitution but rather is taken from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson while he was President. Many even know that Jefferson was writing to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut when he employed this now - famous phrase. But what was he writing about?
The Baptists from Danbury had written to Jefferson asking him to declare a national day of Thanksgiving to God. They reminded Jefferson that both George Washington and John Adams had issued such declarations and asked Jefferson to follow suit. Jefferson replied that he felt a presidential declaration of a national day of Thanksgiving would be an unconstitutional violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.
James Madison, credited by the Supreme Court as the principal architect of the First Amendment, differed with Jefferson on this point and issued declarations of days of Thanksgiving. He noted in his memoirs that he did so because no one was forced to participate if he did not choose to do so. Of course, the modern practice of days of Thanksgiving and even a presidential declaration of a national day of prayer are well - known.
No constitutional scholar with even half a brain would ever suggest that the Supreme Court would strike down a presidential declaration of a day of Thanksgiving. But that is exactly what the Jefferson theory of the First Amendment requires. The phrase “separation of church and state” was coined for the very purpose of arguing that Thanksgiving celebrations were unconstitutional. If Jefferson’s theory was bankrupt on the very situation for which it was invented, then what vitality can it possibly claim in other areas of practice and law?
However, the protection given to the free exercise of religion is begrudging at best. Christians are increasingly cynical about the courts in this regard. With good reason they believe that the First Amendment is a cruel hoax. Such Christians ask with good reason: “If religion cannot come into state schools how can the state come into religious schools?” While the separation of church and state has been declared to be a high and impregnable wall when it comes to keeping religion out of the public schools, when it comes to keeping the state out of religious schools, it functions more and more like a screen door on a submarine.