Our Founding generation was generally very concerned about the powers being granted to the new Federal government, and thus sought to strongly limit it within the Constitution. When Thomas Jefferson became our nation’s 3rd President in 1801, he received a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association expressing concerns over the potential loss of religious freedom via the Federal government’s abuse. They wrote:
“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. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific…Therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” (letter from Danbury Baptists to Jefferson, 1801)
In reply, and to reassure them that no attack upon religious freedom by the Federal government would occur because of restrictions within the Constitution (1st Amendment), Jefferson wrote back:
“…Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and 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 and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association assurances of my high respect and esteem.” (Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists, 1802, emphasis added)
It is important to remember that over time terms and words change in meaning. The term “natural rights” during our Founders’ time, can be defined as what liberties God had given to man in the Holy Scriptures of the Bible. Jefferson meant that religious liberty was one of the “inalienable rights” written into the Declaration of Independence, the heart of American political beliefs from which the Constitution and its Bill of Rights grew.
Not just this once, but in many writings, Jefferson expressed this belief, some examples:
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” (Jefferson, 1794)
“No power over the freedom of religion…is delegated to the United States by the Constitution.” (Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolutions, 1798)
“In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general government.” (Jefferson’s 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805)
“Our excellent Constitution…has not placed our religious rights under the power of any public functionary.” (Jefferson’s letter to the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1808)
“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions…or exercises.” (Jefferson’s letter to Samuel Miller, 1808)
Many others among the Founders expressed similar and related thoughts on this matter of “separation of church and state.’ Basically, what they meant in the 1st Amendment words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (Bill of Rights, 1st Amendment, 1791), was that the Federal government would not only not interfere with the peoples’ practice of religion where, when, and how they chose, but would also not dictate a tax-supported government religion. Rather, they intended that the Federal government would keep a “hands off” attitude towards religion as long as it did not “work ill towards his neighbor” such as in physical attacks.
What changed? Why is the Federal court now constantly involving itself in the area of religion? Why have the Bible, the Ten Commandments, prayer, etc. seemingly been outlawed in our schools and public places? How could this happen? Well, briefly…
The very few, limited powers of the Federal courts are listed in Article 3 of the Constitution. Of the three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial), the Federal court is Constitutionally the weakest. Its jurisdiction, appointments, and size are set by the Congress and/or the President. Yet, today, it is ruling over all Federal and State governments, even writing law from the bench! How did this happen? Because the other two branches of the Federal government have failed to do their job in control of the judiciary! The Federal court system has simply grabbed powers not delegated to it by our Founders. This began during the “Marshall Court” (John Marshall was then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court). In the case Marbury v. Madison, 1803, the court “grabbed” the right of judicial review of various acts of government. Nothing in the Constitution allowed them this power.
Read Separation of Church and State Part II next week
Randy Conover is a retired educator. He lives in Clermont County.