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How Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” Redefined Church-State Law and Policy

No metaphor in American letters has had a greater influence on law and policy than Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State.”  Many Americans accept it as a pithy description of the constitutionally prescribed Church-State arrangement, and it has become the locus classicus of the notion that the First Amendment separated religion and the civil state, thereby mandating a strictly secular polity.

More important, the judiciary has embraced this figurative phrase as a virtual rule of constitutional law and as the organizing theme of Church-State jurisprudence, even though the metaphor is not found in the Constitution.  Writing for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, Justice Hugo L. Black asserted that the justices had “agreed that the First Amendment’s language, properly interpreted, had erected a wall of separation between Church and State.”  Our democracy is threatened, Justice John Paul Stevens warned last term, “[w]henever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government.”

What is the source of this figure of speech, and how has this symbol of strict separation between religion and public life come to dominate Church-State law and policy?  I address these questions in my new book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (2002).

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