Publication Date

Spring 4-22-2019


College of Arts and Sciences; Helms School of Government


Government: Pre-Law; History


Separation of Church and State, Liberty of Conscience, Thomas Jefferson, Supreme Court Interpretation


First Amendment | Intellectual History | United States History


The symbolic concept of separation between church and state defines the relationship between government and religion. While Jefferson did not author the phrase, the third President of the United States promoted the philosophy of a wall of separation between church and state in his letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. Jefferson’s support for a wall of separation stemmed from a strong belief in liberty of conscience and relied heavily upon the conviction to protect religious liberty. Through an analysis on the contextual history of the phrase, the original intent and application of separation of church and state becomes evident. By examining Jefferson’s original intent behind the concept of a wall of separation, a proper interpretation of this philosophy will demonstrate appropriate protection for both religion and government.

Later paraphrased “separation of church and state,” this political concept has been misconstrued from Jefferson’s original meaning. Recent Supreme Court interpretations have misinterpreted the concept as freedom from religion, instead of freedom of religion.The Supreme Court has mistakenly categorized the wall of separation as a summary of the First Amendment and cited Jefferson’s phrase as judicial precedent in numerous cases, resulting in a misrepresentation of Jefferson’s concepts. This misrepresentation subsequently affected the judicial rulings of succeeding courts.