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Writer Sheds Light on Thomas Jefferson's Controversial 'Wall of Separation' in an Interview Published by The Rutherford Institute

Jefferson Expert Talks About Real Meaning of 'Wall of Separation Between Church and State'

--In an interview with The Rutherford Institute, author and Jefferson expert Daniel L. Dreisbach challenges the conventional understanding of "the wall of separation between church and state." Perhaps no phrase has had a more profound impact on American church-state law and debate than the "wall" metaphor, which Thomas Jefferson introduced in an 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association, and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black brought to the legal lexicon over a century later. While many people consider it to be the authoritative description of the constitutionally required relationship between religion and government, in his latest book, Thomas Jefferson and Separation Between Church and State (NYU Press, 2002), Dreisbach argues that the metaphor distorts the First Amendment, contrary to Jefferson's intention.

The literal text of the First Amendment restricts the government only, whereas a wall, given its bilateral nature, also restricts the role of religion and faith communities, Dreisbach points out. Dreisbach investigates how the metaphor has been misused to prevent minority religious groups, particularly Catholics, from participating fully in public life, and he calls for its abandonment: "I think that if we abandon this metaphor, we will force those who are seeking to exclude religion from public life to articulate the premises of the position more clearly rather than simply relying on a slogan. ... I think that it's healthy to reexamine this metaphor because ... it will lead to a clearer and less ambiguous debate about the proper role of religion in our society and culture."

Dreisbach is an associate professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University in Washington, D.C., who has written extensively on the interaction between religion and politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The interview is available on The Rutherford Institute's Web site at

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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