Sunday, March 28, 2010

Thomas Jefferson: The True Meaning of the First Amendment

Thomas Jefferson is often quoted today when we hear "separation of church and state," a phrase from a private letter he wrote while President of the U.S.  Various activist groups have used that phrase to indicate that Jefferson would not approve of any government recognition of religion, as have the courts in recent years. But what did Jefferson mean by that phrase? His own practice was to use the phrase "freedom of religion" when discussing the First Amendment. And it seems clear to me that his main concern was about some kind of official government control over religion, or some limit on free expression of religion. Consider these words of Jefferson:

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the General Government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808. ME 11:428

That quote and many others can be found within the University of Virginia's collection of Jefferson papers:

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