During a recent campaign event, Jenna Ellis, an adviser to President Donald Trump, cut loose with the old Religious Right chestnut that separation of church and state isn’t part of the Constitution.
“The left is going to tell you there’s this separation of church and state, and that’s just nowhere in the Constitution, nowhere in American law,” Ellis said during a Zoom meeting hosted by Asian Pacific Americans for Trump. “That’s nothing that our founding principles ever, uh, derived whatsoever.”
She added that church-state separation comes from “twisting a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Church that was simply talking about the three tiers of authority that God himself ordained – the church government, the civil government, and the family government.”
Ellis would have done well to actually read Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association before popping off on it because that famous missive doesn’t say what she seems to think it does. The Daily Beast helpfully pointed out what Ellis got wrong and even quoted a blog post by Americans United Assistant Director of Communications Liz Hayes making it clear that key founders like Jefferson and James Madison supported separation of church and state. (Madison, it is worth noting, was one of the primary authors of the Constitution’s religious freedom protections, which were inspired by Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.)
History is important, but there’s another reason why the term "separation of church and state" came into existence: It’s a convenient way of explaining what the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment do.
The first 16 words of the First Amendment are, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” People who work in the legal community call the first part of that the “Establishment Clause” and the second part the “Free Exercise Clause.”
These are not terms that smoothly roll off the tongues of non-lawyers, though. Even in pre-Twitter days, people often looked for shortcuts when communicating complex ideas. The phrase “separation of church and state” nicely summarizes the scope and effect of the First Amendment.
In his classic book Church, State and Freedom, eminent church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer put it well. Pfeffer noted that the literal words “separation of church and state” don’t appear in the Constitution but added, “But it was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so clearly and widely held by the American people.”
Pfeffer pointed out that the phrases “fair trial” and “religious liberty” are found nowhere in the Constitution, yet few would doubt that our founding charter protects those principles. He wrote, “The universal acceptance which all these terms, including ‘separation of church and state,’ have received in America would seem to confirm rather than disparage their reality as basic American principles.”
Pfeffer was right. Separation of church and state is an American principle. We pioneered it, and we should be proud of it. It’s a shame to see a vital American ideal subjected to ignorant attacks -- and that's why Americans United defends separation every day.
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