Dreisbach talks Thomas Jefferson, religion in America

Provost Lecture
Daniel Dreisbach speaks during the Provost Lecture in the Brewer Dining Hall. | Photo by MiKalla Cotton, staff photographer
Provost Lecture
Daniel Dreisbach shares the Provost Lecture in the Brewer Dining Hall. | Photo by MiKalla Cotton, staff photographer

Daniel Dreisbach, professor in the department of justice, law and criminology, spoke Thursday on “How Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Wall of Separation’ Redefined Religion’s Place in American Public Life.” In his lecture he explained that while most everyone is familiar with the phrases “wall of separation” and “separation of church and state,” many may not understand Thomas Jefferson’s intentions.

Although these two phrases are both well-known, Dreisbach said they are “not found literally in the text of the United States Constitution nor do we find them elsewhere in American Organic Law.”

The idea originated in 1947 “when the Supreme Court of the United States issued one of its first, and certainly one of its most important rulings on ‘how do we interpret the establishment clause of the first amendment?'” Dreisbach said. “The First Amendment begins with those words ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.'”

Dreisbach said out of the Supreme Court decision in the case of Everson v. Board of Education sprung the metaphor of a “wall of separation” which has, over time, become a foundation to American law.

“The wall metaphor in particular has provided the rationale with the veneer of historical legitimacy for subsequent judicial decisions banning prayer in public schools or stripping public spaces of the ten commandments and removing religious symbols from public spaces and excluding religious citizens and organizations such as faith-based social welfare agencies from full participation in civic life on the same terms and conditions as their secular counterparts,” Dreisbach said. “In our own time, the wall of separation has been accepted by many Americans as sort of a pithy, an authoritative expression, of what the First Amendment requires, and in fact, I think we see that courts and commentators have embraced this metaphor as sort of the definitive word of our constitution on the role of religion in public life.”

Based on his research, Dreisbach has concluded that the metaphor as we know it today, does not have the same meaning Thomas Jefferson intended. Dreisbach said the issue is not so much the wall, but where the wall is placed.

“The wall is not between church and state,” he said. “[Jefferson] says that the wall puts the national government on one side, [and] state governments, religious societies on the other.”

In a letter to the Danbury Baptist, Jefferson is quoted in writing, “Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious proclamation, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states.” That is where the authority lies, Dreisbach said.

Image courtesy of MiKalla Cotton|Cardinal & Cream