Constitutional Myth-Busting: Separation of Church and State
Myth: The Constitution mandates the “separation of church and state.”
Truth: Neither the phrase “separation of church and state,” nor anything like it, appears in the Constitution.
Sixteen words in the Constitution address the relationship between government and religion. They are the first sixteen words of the First Amendment, which was ratified in 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights. They say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It has become commonplace to believe that those sixteen words mandate the “separation of church and state.” That belief runs contrary to the original meaning of the First Amendment, however, as demonstrated by the Founders themselves. Shortly after drafting the language of what would become the First Amendment, for instance, the first Congress asked President Washington to issue a proclamation for a day of prayer and thanksgiving. Washington complied, without any apparent reservation regarding the constitutionality of such a move. Washington issued another, similar proclamation a few years later, after the First Amendment had been ratified. Washington and the first Congress endorsed other official uses of religion, too, both before and after the ratification of the First Amendment: the federal government hired and paid chaplains for the military and for Congress, allowed Christian missionaries to help negotiate treaties with Indian tribes, required certain officials to take oaths “so help me God,” and set aside public land for religious uses.
Of course, a minority of the Founders held different views. One who favored greater separation was Thomas Jefferson, who was politically at odds with much of the New England clergy and did not like the extent to which Presidents Washington and Adams had entangled the government with religion. Jefferson did not attend the Constitutional Convention and was not a member of the first Congress, which debated and drafted the First Amendment. Nevertheless, in 1802, shortly after he became president, he wrote a letter in which he declared, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that the 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 & State.“ Jefferson’s phrase was not well-received when he wrote it. It lay dormant for decades, but in 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court cited it as an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution. The Court did so again in 1947 and more frequently thereafter, thus transforming Jefferson’s after-the-fact, political advocacy into constitutional doctrine.