You don't have to be a religious believer to believe in religious freedom.
It's a clear case of endorsement of religion. But does it violate the principle of separation of church and state?
The case in point is a letter on my desk, signed by the president of the United States. The letter was written while the president was serving in his official capacity. That is, he was "on the job."
Though personal, the letter was clearly written for public consumption. It dealt with an issue of state and was addressed to more than one person.
His offending statements include the following: First, the president wrote that he intended to pray for the letter's recipients. Then, he acknowledged the God to whom he was praying was his "Father." Furthermore, he referred to God as the "Creator." While his words may have been intended as a benign pleasantry, the president was, nonetheless, publicly endorsing creationism.
What's more, the president continued his endorsement of religion by noting that God — the "Father and Creator of man" — was their source of protection and blessings. It appears the president believed his God to be personal, powerful and transcendent.
Granted, the Commander in Chief may have used these terms as niceties, but even in that context, he was guilty of endorsing religion. But, again, does an endorsement of religion violate the establishment clause of the Constitution's First Amendment?
The answer is "no." Here's why.
It is significant to note that the president writing the letter containing the religious endorsements was none other that Thomas Jefferson.
President Jefferson, you will recall, coined the phrase "separation of church and state" when explaining the establishment clause. Had President Jefferson believed religious endorsements to constitute an establishment of religion, he would not have made the endorsements.
More significant, perhaps, is the date Mr. Jefferson's letter was written. He penned the letter on January 1, 1802. That, not coincidentally, was the very day that Jefferson coined—for the first time—the phrase "separation of church and state."
What is more telling is this fact: President Jefferson's endorsement of religion was made immediately after he wrote the words "separation of church and state." In fact, he made his endorsement of religion literally before the ink dried from writing the separation phrase. His famous separation phrase and his endorsement of religion were, in fact, both parts of the same letter.
The letter in reference was addressed to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. The occasion for the letter was a complaint by the Baptists that their constitutional rights were being violated because they were excluded from participating in government. The discrimination they were suffering, according to their letter, was "inconsistent with the rights of freemen."
Think about the above paragraph. The separation phrase was written — not to defend the rights of humanists and atheists to exclude religious endorsements from the public forum — but to assure straight-laced King James Bible toting Baptists that they would be included.
President Jefferson's letter is presented, in its entirety, below. Jefferson's endorsement of religion is highlighted in red.
The letter of complaint, to which he was responded, is presented at the link at the end of Mr. Jefferson's letter.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which are so good to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and 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 and State.
Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all of his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessings of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.
Thomas JeffersonRead the letter from the Danbury Baptists which prompted Thomas Jefferson's letter of reponse HERE
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