First Amendment Defenders Debunk Limbaugh Claims

Despite conservative denial of separation of church and state, the intent is clear in the secular nature of the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, in writings by the founding fathers, and in multiple court decisions. First Freedom First debunks recent claims by Rush Limbaugh regarding correspondence from Thomas Jefferson and Supreme Court decisions which cited this. After reporting on Limbaugh’s claims, they respond:

In the first place, Jefferson sent his letter to the Baptists to thank them for their support of him and his stance on behalf of religious liberty. He also intended to assure them that he shared their hope that religious liberty would spread throughout the land. In Connecticut, Baptists were still second-class citizens.

After thanking the Baptists for their “affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation,” Jefferson wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State.

“Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience,” Jefferson continued, “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.”

In other words, Jefferson said the American people through the First Amendment have built a wall of separation between church and state, and he hoped that concept would progress throughout the country.

Limbaugh is wrong that the exchange of letters between Jefferson and the Baptists was focused on prayer proclamations. Jefferson did consider commenting on why he didn’t believe in presidentially issued days of prayer, but decided not to.

Limbaugh is also quite wrong that “nothing could be done” to the Baptist dissenters in Connecticut. At that time, the federal constitution’s church-state provisions did not extend to the states. The government of Connecticut could, and did, favor Congregationalists over Baptists. That’s why the Baptists wrote to praise Jefferson and point to their plight.

“Sir,” they wrote, “we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth.”

Limbaugh’s Supreme Court account is wrong too. Jefferson’s letter was first mentioned in high court jurisprudence, not in 1947, but in 1879. In their Reynolds v. U.S. decision, the justices unanimously held that the letter reflects the intent of the First Amendment.

“Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure,” the court held, “it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.”

The justices referred to the letter again in their 1947 Everson –not Emerson — decision. And the court unanimously affirmed a high wall of separation between religion and government.

“In the words of Jefferson,” Justice Hugo Black wrote, “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’…. That wall must be kept high and impregnable.”

Far from misconstruing Jefferson’s viewpoint, as Limbaugh claims, the Danbury letter exactly captures the Sage of Monticello’s church-state vision. It also reflects the views of James Madison and other far-sighted visionaries among the nation’s founders.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    Patrick Roberts says:

    interesting… an unintended, genius aspect of democracy is that the state of the government will represent the state of the people. We needn’t impose any particular religion on our government. Whether or not our government is morally stable will reflect the moral stability of us, the people. So how are we doing?

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