Church and State: Clearing Thomas Jefferson’s Good Name

Today, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we remember the man who can list as his crowning achievement the Declaration of Independence. But with the Obamacare contraceptive mandate still fresh in our memories, perhaps it would be good to remember another aspect of Jefferson’s legacy: his staunch commitment to religious liberty.

Jefferson firmly believed in the importance of keeping government out of religion, and nowhere is this more evident than in his drafting of the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. This act boldly proclaims “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” The purpose of this law was to disestablish the Anglican Church as the official state religion and to ensure freedom of religion for all Virginians. This theme of allowing a person to worship any higher power they choose is connected to the Declaration’s right to pursue happiness.

Later, upon becoming our third President, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut in response to their complaints about the state legislature infringing on their religious liberties. Describing how he thought the federal government should act toward the states on matters of religion, he famously wrote that, although he sympathized with them, he could not act because “a wall of separation between Church and State” exists.

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