When opponents of school vouchers and faith-based social services initiatives argue that the Constitution forbids these programs, they often cite, as their authority, a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. In the letter, Jefferson said that the First Amendment to the Constitution created a "wall of separation between church and state."
Jefferson's Wall became the law of the land in 1947, when Justice Hugo Black invoked it in Everson v. Board of Education. The Wall, Black said, "must be kept high and impregnable. . . . We could not approve the slightest breach." Under the Constitution, he said, government cannot "pass laws which aid one religion" or that "aid all religions."
Half a century after Everson, Justice Black's version of Jefferson's Wall still defines our understanding of the First Amendment's injunction, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." But there is a problem with this understanding: Black's version of Jefferson's Wall isn't what Jefferson himself had in mind when he came up with the metaphor 200 years ago.
In the last decade, historians have shed new light on just what Jefferson did have in mind. In 1998, in an unexpected collaboration of scholars and crime busters, the chief of the Library of Congress's Manuscript Division, James H. Hutson, sent Jefferson's rough draft of the letter to the FBI for examination. Jefferson, Hutson observed, had "heavily edited" the draft. "Words, phrases, entire lines were inked out," Hutson wrote. A "marginal note was added to explain a section that was circled for deletion."
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