The Herald Bulletin

Afternoon Update


January 24, 2013

Letter: Jefferson wanted to make clear his views

A glance at the history surrounding Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists shows that Juliann Williams’ “Separation ...” letter of Dec. 15, is simply wrong.

As church-state scholarship and history points out, Jefferson clearly saw the letter as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement on church and state. Before sending the letter, he had it vetted by his attorney general Levi Lincoln.

Jefferson saw his response to the Baptists as an opportunity to clear up his views on church and state. After all he was under fire from conservative religious elements who hated his strong stand for full religious liberty. The letter, therefore, represented a summary of Jefferson’s thinking on the purpose and effected of the First Amendment’s religious clauses.

Jefferson wanted to bar all religious establishments; he left no room for “non-preferentialism”, the view touted by today’s accommodationists that government can aid religion as long as it assists all religion equally.

The Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision, the high court said, “Jefferson’s observations may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the First Amendment.” In the court’s 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”

Constitutional litigants are obliged to argue within the parameters of prior court precedents.

Bill J. Paschal


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