Origins and Dangers of the ‘Wall of Separation’ Between Church and State

From Daniel L. Dreisbach and OrthodoxyToday.org.

“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.” For many Americans, this metaphor has supplanted the actual text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 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 language as a virtual rule of constitutional law and as the organizing theme of church-state jurisprudence. 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.” The continuing influence of this wall is evident in the Court’s most recent church-state pronouncements.

The rhetoric of church-state separation has been a part of western political discourse for many centuries, but it has only lately come to a place of prominence in American constitutional law and discourse. What is the source of the “wall of separation” metaphor so frequently referenced today? How has this symbol of strict separation between religion and public life become so influential in American legal and political thought? Most important, what are the policy and legal consequences of the ascendancy of separationist rhetoric and of the transformation of “separation of church and state” from a much-debated political idea to a doctrine of constitutional law embraced by the nation’s highest court?”

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