Fact Checking “Wall of Separation”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has reviewed many errors in the religious right propaganda film, Wall of Separation, which I also commented on last week. Following are some of the specific errors found:

Claim: Thomas Jefferson supported seminaries at the University of Virginia.
Response: Just the opposite is true. Jefferson opposed having a divinity professor at the university, asserting that religious groups could provide services in the town of Charlottesville. UVA is generally regarded as the first American university to separate religion from higher education.

Claim: Jefferson supported using the Bible in Washington, D.C.’s public schools.
Response: During his presidency, Jefferson served as president of the local school board in a largely ceremonial post. The board adopted a proposal to include the Bible in the curriculum in 1812 – three years after Jefferson left the board. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson opposed teaching the Bible to children, arguing that their minds were not mature enough.

Claim: James Madison approved chaplains in Congress.
Response: Madison did so early in his career. He later admitted his mistake, writing, “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”

Claim: Jefferson wrote the Northwest Ordinance, which called for government funding of religion.
Response: Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Northwest Ordinance, and his language was wholly secular. A congressional committee later added language stating, “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The document does not endorse government funding of religion.

Claim: “In God We Trust” is inscribed in the House and Senate chambers and appears on U.S. currency, thus proving that the framers supported mixing religion and government.
Response: These are modern developments, dating to the 1950s. “In God We Trust” was adopted as a national motto in 1956. (“In God We Trust” first appeared on some coins during the Civil War. Its use was not mandated on coins until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Its use on paper money was mandated by Congress during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

Claim: Benjamin Franklin called for prayers during the Constitutional Convention.
Response: True, but “Wall of Separation” fails to tell the rest of the story: The delegates did not act on the request. Franklin himself noted, “The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.” Why would a convention determined to forge a society based on “biblical law” open its deliberations without even a nod to a Supreme Being?

Claim: The Supreme Court applied the Bill of Rights to the states in 1947’s Everson v. Board of Education.
Response: The 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, applies portions of the Bill of Rights to the states. During the debate over the amendment, Sen. Jacob Howard (R-Mich.), a primary advocate, said the amendment’s purpose was to apply the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights to the states. “To these privileges and immunities,” he noted, “should be added the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments to the Constitution….The great object of the first section of the amendment is therefore to restrain the powers of the state and to compel them at all times to respect these fundamental guarantees.” The Supreme Court recognized this as early as the 1920s and fully embraced “incorporation” in a 1940 ruling, Cantwell v. Connecticut.

Claim: In 1963, the Supreme Court struck down “voluntary Bible reading” in public schools in Abington Township School District v. Schempp.
Response: There was nothing voluntary about it. Pennsylvania state law mandated that ten verses of the King James Bible be read aloud every day followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Schools were not required to excuse students, and some punished those who would not take part.

Claim: Article VI, a constitutional provision that bans religious tests for public office, was actually designed to preserve religious tests in the states.
Response: This is an absurd argument. When Article VI was announced, it sparked a firestorm of opposition from conservative religious leaders, who supported religious tests for public office. They did not perceive Article VI as helpful to their cause.

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