Jul 28, 1998

Two dozen of the nation's leading church-state scholars have signed a joint letter to the Library of Congress refuting a paper the Library issued June 1 that was highly critical of Thomas Jefferson's views on religion and government.

In 1802, then-President Jefferson wrote the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association a letter noting that the American people through the First Amendment had built "a wall of separation between church and state." The letter has been cited by the Supreme Court and other federal courts as an important statement of the Framers' constitutional intentions.

However, the Library of Congress paper, written by James Hutson, chief of the manuscripts division, asserts that Jefferson spoke favorably of church-state separation merely to fend of political attacks, not to make a major statement of public policy.

The Hutson paper was quickly seized by the Christian Coalition and other Religious Right leaders as proof that the founding fathers never intended to erect a barrier between religion and government.

The 24 professors signing the joint letter note that Hutson's view is at odds with accepted scholarship about Jefferson's Danbury letter. The scholars state their disagreement with Hutson's conclusions and call on the Library of Congress to "refrain from presenting those conclusions as settled fact."

Asserts the letter, "The Jefferson phrase 'thus building a wall of separation between church and state' is familiar to millions of Americans and is regularly thought of as a convenient way to describe the scope and effect of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. We believe Jefferson's metaphor to be a significant part of understanding the matrix out of which that Amendment emerged. The historical record makes clear that he used his commitment to religious freedom with utmost deliberation in order to set forth both his philosophy and his view of public policy."

Elsewhere the letter states that Hutson's analysis, which was not subjected to peer review, "yields an unbalanced treatment of this important topic on the basis of questionable analysis" and that "the essay depends upon a flawed premise...."

The Library of Congress issued Hutson's paper in conjunction with the opening of a major exhibit, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," which examines the role of religion in the colonial and post-Revolutionary era.

The rebuttal letter was drafted by Prof. Robert M. O'Neil, professor of law at the University of Virginia, and Robert S. Alley, professor of humanities, emeritus, at the University of Richmond and the author of several books dealing with church-state law and history.