Wall of Separation

2012-09-25 15:07:31

A ‘‘wall of separation’’ between church and state has been referenced in Western discourse for half a millennium. The figurative phrase was most famously used by President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) in a January 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, as a representation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment religion guarantees. This controversial trope has been embraced by proponents of a prudential and constitutional separation between the concerns of religion and the civil state and denounced by advocates of an expansive role for religion in civic life.

Although Jefferson is usually credited with coining the phrase, he was not the first to use it in a church– state context. The Dutch Anabaptist Menno Simons (1496–1561) used the metaphor in a 1548 missive explaining the Anabaptists’ insistence that the community of faith be entirely separated from the world. In his magnum opus, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554– 1600) renounced the erection of ‘‘walles of separation’’ between the Church and the Commonwealth that would prevent a Christian prince from fulfilling his divine duty to protect the spiritual estate. Roger Williams (1603?–1683), the founder of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, maintained in a 1644 tract that a ‘‘hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world’’ must be maintained to preserve the purity of Christ’s church from worldly corruptions. The dissenting Real Whig reformer, James Burgh (1714–1775), warned of corrupt ecclesiastical establishments that merely advanced their own profane interests and those of the civil state. Therefore, in his work Crito (1766, 1767), Burgh proposed building ‘‘an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil.’’

In late December 1801, President Jefferson received a message from the Danbury Baptist Association congratulating him on his election to the ‘‘chief Magistracy in the United States’’ and celebrating his support for religious liberty. In his reply, Jefferson linked the ‘‘wall of separation’’ with the text of the First Amendment, thereby, in the minds of many Americans, transforming the metaphor into a constitutional principle. Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State.

Jefferson’s wall, as a matter of federalism, was erected between the national and state governments on matters pertaining to religion and not, more generally, between the church and all agencies of civil government. The ‘‘wall of separation’’ was a metaphoric construction of the First Amendment, which Jefferson said imposed its restrictions on the national government only. The wall delineated the constitutional jurisdictions of the national and state governments respectively on religious concerns, such as official proclamations for days of public prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving.

The term slipped into obscurity until it was rediscovered by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. United States (1879), a Mormon polygamy case, the Court reproduced the paragraph from the Danbury letter containing the metaphoric phrase. The metaphor’s current fame dates to Everson v. Board of Education (1947), in which a divided Court upheld the constitutionality of state reimbursements to parents for money expended in transporting their children to and from parochial schools. The Court rejected the contention that the tax supported program constituted an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment. In separationist language dissonant from the holding, Associate Justice Hugo L. Black wrote for the majority:

Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.... In the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘‘a wall of separation between church and State’’.... That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

The Everson Court also incorporated the First Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment, thereby holding the nonestablishment provision of the First Amendment against the states. Insofar as the First Amendment erected a ‘‘wall of separation,’’ that wall now separated church and state at both the national and state levels.

In McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the following term, the Supreme Court confirmed the metaphor’s influence in constitutional law, noting that the justices had ‘‘agreed that the First Amendment’s language, properly interpreted, had erected a wall of separation between Church and State.’’ In subsequent cases, several justices, most notably Associate Justice Potter Stewart in Engel v. Vitale (1962) (Stewart, J., dissenting) and then Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting), have criticized the judiciary’s reliance on a metaphor not found in the U.S. Constitution as a substitute for constitutional text.

Since the mid-twentieth century, few phrases have had a greater influence on church–state law and policy or have generated more controversy than the ‘‘wall of separation.’’ Bitterly debated is whether the trope clarifies or distorts constitutional principles governing the relationship between church and state.

The metaphor’s proponents contend that it encapsulates an important constitutional principle. A wall prevents religious establishments and all other forms of government assistance for religious objectives, avoids conflict among denominations competing for government favor, and facilitates the private, voluntary exercise of religion.

Opponents counter that reliance on an extraconstitutional metaphor as a substitute for First Amendment text distorts constitutional principles governing church–state relationships. Unlike the First Amendment, which imposes restrictions on civil government only (specifically on Congress), a wall is a bilateral barrier that inhibits the activities of both civil government and religion. The wall, critics say, exceeds constitutional requirements by inhibiting religion’s ability to influence public life and policy.


References and Further Reading

  • Dreisbach, Daniel L. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  • Forum, William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., LVI (October 1999): 775–824.
  • Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948)
  • Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879)
  • Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985)

See also Application of First Amendment to States; Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); Establishment Clause; Establishment of Religion and Free Exercise Clause; Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947); Fourteenth Amendment; Incorporation Doctrine; Jefferson, Thomas; McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948); Mormons and Religious Liberty; Rehnquist, William H.; Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878); Stewart, Potter; Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985); Williams, Roger