The Misinterpretation Of The Separation Of Church And State

This time of year there are many “religious issues.” Bill O’Reilly will tell you that there is a War on Christmas. So the Lexington Libertarian will bring out of moth balls from its archives a post on misinterpretation of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.



In Christine O’Donnell’s debate with Chris Coons, she was almost laughed off the stage for challenging that the phrase “separation of church and state,” or “a wall of separation between church and state,” appeared in the Constitution.

The first amendment has two religious clauses.

(1) “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which is the Establishment Clause.

(2) “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the Free Exercise Clause.

Neither of these is called the Separation Clause because separation of church and state is never mentioned in those terms in the Constitution. Now those at the O’Donnell-Coons debate and other elitists in academia try to tell us that not establishing a religion is the same thing as separating religion and state into separate corners, to borrow a fight game analogy. This is just gobbeldy gook and those in their smugness who haughtily try to shower any who say otherwise with scorn are trying to interpret their own agenda into something where the meaning and intent is entirely different.


The origin of the phrase “separation of church and state’”comes from correspondence between the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists and Thomas Jefferson. The Danbury Baptists were concerned that if a Connecticut state religion was instituted by law that their freedom to worship would be compromised. They sought reassurance that this would not happen. You might remember that much earlier the Puritans had fled Europe, because of religious persecution in countries that had a state endorsed religion, to set up shop in Massachusetts. There they put in place in essence a state Puritan religion prompting Roger Williams and the Baptists to flee to Rhode Island in order to freely practice their religion.

So the Danbury, Baptists in 1801 wrote in their letter to Jefferson:

“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty; that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals; that no man ought to suffer in name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions; that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”

Jefferson replied on January 1, 1802.

“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 and State.” (emphasis added)


Often times the Supreme Court will take under advisement the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the historical context in which statues were written as well as the actual wording of the Constitution itself. It is only fair then to do the same here, to probe just what the framers had in mind and just what situations the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause were aimed at.

James Madison, often called the author of the Constitution, had a slightly different wording in the original draft of the First amendment Religious Clauses. In the first draft Madison wrote:

“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”(emphasis added)

This draft was hotly debated and eventually through compromise we ended up with what we have now. But during that debate Madison made it plainly clear what motivated him and what his purpose was in crafting the First amendment.

He said, “he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.”

So we see the framers, whose context was that they came from European monarchies with state religions, were determined that there would be no national church and that everybody would have the religious freedom to worship as they pleased.

That is a far cry from the modern application of this amendment. We have gone from a “hands off” attitude to removing all religion from the government. That was never the intent of those who wrote the rules. Today we interpret the first amendment to remove all religion from the marketplace. The 10th Amendment cannot be displayed on government buildings, crosses are yanked out of remote areas and prayer while school is in session, even a moment of silence is not allowed.

In that school prayer case, Wallace versus Jaffree, 1985, Justice Rhenquist in the dissenting opinion said, “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.”

The Liberal Left who disregard the Constitution whenever it gets in their way now are seen to be championing a strict interpretation of our sacred document while in the process adding words and meanings that are not there. All this to create a secular society that is religious neutral. But neutrality was never the design of the framers nor was free expression of religion in the marketplace deemed either offensive or illegal.


There is no national religious endorsement of any religion by the government and there hasn’t been such for centuries. Today all the application of the First Amendment Religious Clauses has been geared to stifling the religious expression of individuals. The framers were never concerned with what individuals were doing; they were concerned with what government might do.

In the process the Left has hurdled America from freedom of religion to freedom from religion. The result has been the state, our government, taking an antagonistic attitude to any religious expression.

……………The Lexington Libertarian, October 2010

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