Letter from Thomas Jefferson

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of 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.

Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Danbury Baptist Association (1802).


Focus Questions:

1. What contradictions or tensions exist between the idea of maintaining a wall of separation between church and state and permitting people to freely exercise their religion?

2. Can you think of examples in which allowing one person to exercise his religion might infringe on another person's religious rights or right not to observe any religious practice?

3. How is it possible to have guaranteed rights under a constitutional system that completely separates opinions from actions? To have a system of government that reaches only into "actions"?

4. Given that our Constitution requires our government to be neutral on matters of religious believe, establishes to what extent do you believe elected government representatives can infuse decision-making with their religious beliefs?

Advertisement