This misuse of the phrase is unfortunate as the historical record shows that the 1st Ammendment was written to PROTECT religious expression from government, not to separate them. In fact, the House of Representatives called for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving on September 24, 1789 - the same day that it passed the First Amendment.
Rather than ensure government doesnt establish a state-sponsored religion, the 1st Ammendment is being used to marginalize religious thought in the public arena. This is a clear violation of original intent and a history lesson on "separation of church & state" is in order.
Traditionally, the Church of England, as supported by the Royal Crown, held legal priority over all other demoninations. King James I had established the Anglican Church as the Church of England, and openly persecuted seperatists. Many of these seperatists fled to Holland, including those who settled in Leiden, to later become the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock in 1620. When other seperatists groups followed, the Pilgrims drafted the Baptist Confession of 1612 to distinguish themselves. In this document, we find the first public claim for religious liberty.
Article 84: "That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave the Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Rom. xiii), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience."
Notice that this declaration doesnt call for any 'separation' of religion from the public realm, but specifies that public officers shall not meddle in religious affairs.
The Puritans, on the other hand, didnt share such a libertarian view of religious freedom. The Puritans, believing the English Crown to be drifting towards Catholic tradition,feared the Crown would someday embrace Catholocism as the state religion. Therefore, in the New World, the Puritans defined religious freedom as their mandate to preserve Puritan ideals, and saw an alliance between religion and government as a way to maintain this purity. This inevitably led to a persecution of seperatists by Puritans, often using the alliance of religion and government to impose such persecution.
Roger Williams, a fierce advocate of religious liberty from Rhode Island, spoke out against the growing culture of church/state alliances and originated the "wall of separation" metaphor when he spoke of “a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
This figurative language clearly implies that the church should be protected from the world, not vice-versa. Williams later reaffirmed this theme when he proclaimed, "God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls."
Again, notice that the focus is on protecting religious expression from government...a secular government is never implied.
In the 18th century, separatists who held a special disdain for the Puritan system, Baptists in particular, began to rebel against the cooperation between political and religious groups. As the culture of dissent grew, various new separatist groups appeared and, while naturally disliked by other groups, they were given great freedom and tolerance within their communities. However, the Anglicans were still receiving a disproportionate amount of tax exemptions and government benefits. As the public protest grew, citizens took issue not with the provision of public funds to religious groups, but to the EXCLUSIVE provision to any single group. While debate on this matter flourished, the argument was never for a secular state, but for a non-denominational state and this philosophy took root in America's early civilization.
This leads us to the Bill of Rights.
Religious liberty was a core philosophy in drafting the Bill of Rights, but many separatists were still unconvinced 11 years after it was ratified. This sentiment is best expressed in the famous Danbury Baptist Association letter sent to President Thomas Jefferson, on October 7, 1801, which stated their concern that whatever "religious privileges they enjoy, they enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights”.
It is Jefferson's response on January 1, 1802, in which we first find the specific phrase, "separation of church and state".
“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.”
Given the national discourse and specific context of FAVORITISM of one sect over another, and the absense of any discussion regarding PROHIBITION of religion, it is clear that Jefferson doesnt refer to a 'wall of separation' to imply that religion be removed from the public realm, but only to protect religion from the potential of state DISCRIMINATION. The 1st Ammendment, when read for what it IS, and in keeping with the focus of ALL the Ammendments, is written to restrict government, not religion.
Unfortunately, in 1947, the Supreme Court used the “wall” metaphor in the Everson v. Board of Education decision:
"The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach." The Court perverts the context and meaning of the phrase, and laid the foundation for a principle totally OPPOSITE of what the 1st Ammendment and the "wall" metaphor actually stood for.
Furthermore, the Court also established the radical claim that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment applied to individual states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, thereby preventing states from making religious laws according to the wishes of their constituents. This claim is utterly ridiculous and shows a complete disregard for historical context and judicial restraint.
A plain reading of the precise 1st Ammendment text, "CONGRESS shall make no law...", should make it sufficiently clear that it applies to FEDERAL government. Jefferson demonstrates an understanding of this in his Danbury response:
"...the WHOLE American people which declared that their legislature..."
and in his letter to Rev. Samuel Miller on January 23, 1808, "Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. . ."
Predictably, many will justify the Court's interpretation of the establishment clause by questioning the MEANING of words and the changes in meaning since the original writings. However, the framers predicted these squabbles over language and to avoid any possible debate in interpreting the Constitution, they specified that intent should always be found in the meaning OF THE DAY.
Thomas Jefferson demonstrated this in his inaugural address when he acknowledged his responsibility to uphold the Constitution “according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people at the time of its adoption—a meaning to be found in the explanations of those who advocated [it]”
James Madison also warned, “[if] the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the Nation… be not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable [government], more than for a faithful exercise of its powers.”
This sentiment has been supported by the courts:
Justice Sutherland stated in Euclid v. Ambler Co., 272 U.S. 365 at 387 (1926), “the meaning of the constitutional guaranties never varies, [although] the scope of their application must expand or contract to meet the new and different conditions which are constantly coming within the field of their operations.”
For the record, when referring to historical definitions of "establishment", such as in the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, colonial usage of the word shows that in the context of religion, the word “establish” or “establishment” refers only to a legislative actions amounting to exclusive priveledges for religious organizations.
At this point in our history, correcting the record and preserving the free exercise of religion may be an exercise in futility as secularists seem to have the upper hand in the modern struggle over religious expression. However, the tyranny of government can never overcome man's claim to liberty...nor can it erase the verifiable truth of history.
James Madison and Religious Liberty
Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Library of Congress Exhibition)