The Danbury Letter and the US Supreme Court

“ 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
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptists

This excerpt from Jefferson’s Danbury Letter is not only the most frequently referenced passage of the letter, but also one of the greatest sources of controversy in the interpretation of the first amendment of the Constitution. While Jefferson is not the original creator of the phrase, his use of it here is the often-quoted source of the idea of a “wall of separation.” Although many supreme court cases quote this passage as a means of upholding the establishment clause of the first amendment, there has been protest that Jefferson’s interpretation of the Constitution is not evidence that the presence of separation of church and state exists in the Constitution itself.

Reynolds v. United States 1879

This court case brought the term “wall of separation” back from relative obscurity since the Danbury Letter had been first published. In the case, George Reynolds, a Mormon convicted of polygamy, challenged the federal anti-bigamy statute as violating the first amendment. The issue at hand was whether the federal anti-bigamy law violates the first amendment’s free exercise clause since plural marriage is a religious practice in some sects of Mormonism.The court ultimately ruled that the law was not unconstitutional because the first amendment protects only religious beliefs, not religious practices that are considered to be crimes (like bigamy) In relation to the Danbury Letter, the court quoted Jefferson’s metaphor of the wall of separation between Church and State and declared that Jefferson’s metaphor “may be accepted as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment,” effectively giving credibility to Jefferson’s interpretation under the rule of the law.

Emerson vs. Board of Education 1947

This was the first of the “great age of the forties” separation of church and state cases in which the Danbury Letter was cited to interpret issues of religious freedom.

The petitioner (Everson) filed a suit challenging the New Jersey Board of Education’s ability to reimburse funds to parents of parochial school students for the transportation of their children to and from school.This case challenged the Establishment clause by claiming that the state of New Jersey was respecting the establishment of religion by providing funds to parochial schools.Supreme Court eventually ruled that the statute was not unconstitutional because it was designed to provide a benefit to the parents of all school children, distinct from any religious function in which the children engaged–and thus was not establishing a religion. In addition, the court ruled that the Establishment Clause of the first amendment applied to state governments as well—effectively protecting Jefferson’s idea of separation of church and state beyond the federal level onto the level of state jurisdiction.In the majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black applied Jefferson’s phrase to the 1st amendment:

“Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another…. In the words of Jefferson, the [First amendment] 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. We could not approve the slightest breach.”

Justice Black’s elaboration on Jefferson’s phrase has become a famous example of the US Supreme Court using the Danbury Letter to extend the establishment clause and underscore the need for a clear separation between the government and religious institutions.

McCollum v. Board of Education 1948

In McCollum v. Board of Education, the Champaign County, Illinois Board of Education passed a program of religious instruction in which outside religious teachers, paid for by private third parties, were allowed to enter schools once a week to provide religious instruction. Attendance was not mandatory and students could leave the room during instruction if desired The question to be addressed by the court was whether public schools could bring in religious instructors from the outside to their classrooms during the regular hours of the school day. An 8-1 ruing held that the program did in fact violate the establishment clause by giving government assistance to promote the missionary purposes of religious groups.

The majority held in their ruling that “the First amendment’s language, properly interpreted, had erected a wall of separation between Church and State,’’

further solidifying Jefferson’s metaphor as an effective means to interpret the Establishment Clause

Engel vs. Vitale 1962

In this case, the State of New York authorized a brief, optional and non-denominational prayer at the beginning of the school day in public schools. The concern debated in the case was: Does the recitation of a non-denominational prayer at the start of the school day violate the First amendment’s Establishment Clause? The court’s ruling of 6 to 1 said yes: by giving a prayer to be recited in public schools, the State of New York officially approved religion and thus violated the First amendment. Therefore, any type of prayer led in a public school was declared to be unconstitutional. In relation to the Danbury Letter, the majority ruling used Jefferson’s argument of separation of Church and State to rule the prayer unconstitutional.Also, the dissenting opinion questioned the logic behind using a document other than the constitution to interpret the violation of the constitution.

In fact, a claim that has been made by many is that since Jefferson was not present at the writing of the constitution, his opinions on its interpretation ought not to hold special weight. However, Madison and Jefferson kept frequent correspondence and shared many of the same views on the relationship between government and religion.

Lemon v. Kurtzman 1971

At the time of this case, the State of Pennsylvania was reimbursing parochial schools for certain expenses related to the education of their students such as: teacher salaries, textbooks, and other instructional materials The question asked of the court was: Is it unconstitutional for a state to reimburse parochial schools for the expenses related to teaching non-religious subjects? The court responded with a resounding “No”: reimbursement would be unconstitutional or deemed “excessive entanglement” depending on: the purpose of the institution receiving aid, the nature of that aid, and the relationship between the government and the church as a result This was established in what came to be called the Lemon Test: “Three … tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion,” as put forth by the majority opinion. Unlike most other court cases involving the Danbury Letter, this ruling denied that there is a clearly defined “wall of separation”:

“Our prior holdings do not call for total separation between church and state; total separation is not possible in an absolute sense. Some relationship between government and religious organizations is inevitable…Judicial caveats against entanglement must recognize that the line of separation, far from being a “wall,” is a blurred, indistinct, and variable barrier depending on all the circumstances of a particular relationship.”

This redefinition of the relationship between church and state marked a turning point in the controversy over Jefferson’s Danbury Letter by opening up the door for further discussion of why the letter either ought not to be taken as a literal interpretation of the first amendment.