The full text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” So where does the “separation of church and state” come from; and why, if it isn’t anywhere in the constitution, is the phrase commonly associated with the First Amendment?
On October 7, 1801, the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut sent new President Thomas Jefferson a letter congratulating him on his election. The Danbury Baptists went on to express concern that the First Amendment to the young constitution seemed to treat the freedom of religion as a favor from the government, rather than an inalienable right. In a private letter, President Jefferson hastened to reassure them that, in his opinion, the constitution respected natural rights and did not permit the government to interfere in matters of religion at all:
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.
Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XVI, pp. 281-282, to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802.
It is interesting to note that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in any of the recorded debates among the founding fathers during the drafting and ratification of the constitution and Bill of Rights. And, as you can see from Jefferson’s letter, he thought that the First Amendment shielded religion from the government – not the other way around. Obviously, something has changed!
So where does the modern slant – that religion should stay out of the government – come from, if Jefferson didn't mean it that way? In 1947, in the case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” In that case, the Court struck down a state law that permitted local New Jersey school boards to pay the transportation costs of private school students. The reason? Some of those students were being transported to Catholic schools. In making the quoted statement above, the Court likened those payments to a governmental "establishment" of religion. For the first time, the Court used the "separation" metaphor exactly opposite from the way Jefferson used it - and cited Jefferson while doing it!
Astute readers will notice that the actual language of the First Amendment language only refers to ‘Congress’ – not the states. So why did the Court strike down a New Jersey law? Well, besides using the “separation” metaphor for the first time in its modern context, the Supreme Court in Everson also decided for the first time that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was “incorporated” into the Fourteenth Amendment, which applies to the states. (By the way, the First Amendment does not apply to purely private individuals or institutions – only the government can violate the First Amendment.)
The legal battle regarding the extent and application of the “separation of church and state” is still raging in courts of law and public opinion well after Everson, but regardless of the side you take, you now know the phrase's true origin, its context, its new interpretation by the Supreme Court, and the reason for its prominence today.