Leftists Cry 'Separation of Church and State' Over New Ten Commandments Law - Here's a History Lesson for Them


Rarely have seven innocuous words, misinterpreted and then amplified, caused so much mischief.

On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Jeff Landry of Louisiana ignited leftist outrage by signing a bill that requires all the state’s public school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments.

Predictably, opponents of the bill cited a paraphrased version of a line that appeared in an 1802 letter written by President Thomas Jefferson: “wall of separation between church and state.”

As we shall see, the use of that “separation” phrase to attack Louisiana’s law amounts to an act of sophistry.

No doubt anticipating such objections, Louisiana earmarked no state money for the mandate’s implementation, relying instead on private funds.

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Likewise, to affirm that the mandated display constitutes an acknowledgement of the Ten Commandments’ historical significance, not an endorsement of a particular religious creed, the law also requires a four-paragraph context statement tying the Ten Commandments to American foundational documents.

That, of course, did not satisfy the bill’s opponents.

“BREAKING: We’re suing Louisiana for requiring all public schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom. Public schools are not Sunday schools,” the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted.

Should more states follow Louisiana's lead?

Displaying the Ten Commandments, a cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian tradition that undergirds all of Western civilization, would transform public schools into Sunday schools? Where might the confused and litigious folks at the ACLU get such an idea?

They got it from Jefferson’s “separation” phrase, of course, but not from any real understanding of what Jefferson meant.

“Here’s the deal: We stop pretending there is any kind of separation of church and state here. Tax them. Tax them hard,” one person wrote Wednesday on the social media platform X.

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“Separate church and state,” the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State tweeted.

In other words, leftist objections to the Louisiana law rest on the phrase “separation of church and state.”

Alas, that famous phrase’s historical context does not support the leftist interpretation.

Sometime after Oct. 7, 1801 — the precise date remains unknown — a three-man committee representing the Danbury Baptist Association, a group of 26 Baptist churches in western Connecticut and eastern New York, wrote a letter congratulating their “beloved” Jefferson on his election to the presidency and laying out principles with which they knew he would agree.

“Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States, is not the national Legislator, & also sensible that the national goverment cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the Earth,” the letter read.

The authors even suggested to the president that “America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over.”

“And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom throug Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator,” the letter concluded.

Jefferson did not receive this remarkable letter until Dec. 30. Nor did it reach him without fanfare. In fact, the same itinerant preacher who carried the letter also delivered a now-legendary giant wheel of cheese made by the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts, another Baptist stronghold in a state that did not disestablish its Congregational Church until 1833.

In other words, Jefferson had New England Baptists on the mind as the New Year approached. It might even have been the reason he invited Republican Rep. William Eustis of Massachusetts to dine with him.

Over the next two days, the president’s reply to the Danbury Baptist Association went through two drafts.

In the first draft, he explained why, as president, he had avoided proclaiming religious fast days. But another New England Republican who reviewed the draft encouraged the president to excise that passage, so he did.

The second and final draft preserved the remainder of the original nearly verbatim.

“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, & 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 & State,” Jefferson’s famous second paragraph began.

Why take readers so deep into the weeds with this Jefferson letter? What could all this historical context possibly tell us? And what difference does it make?

For one thing, it reminds us that in 1802 those New England states had long-established (i.e. tax-supported) churches.

Likewise, while Jefferson did not approve of established churches, he made no effort to influence state laws. Indeed, he could not have done so had he wished. As the Danbury Baptists noted, the president “is not the national Legislator,” nor could the federal government — and that includes every branch of the federal government — “destroy the Laws of each State.”

Furthermore, the president’s consultation with several New England Republicans suggests that he intended his letter, once published, primarily for an audience of New England Republicans, in this case Baptists who shared the president’s views on religious freedom. And that suggests a political act, not a statement meant to clarify, alter or forever enshrine First Amendment’s meaning.

Finally, note Jefferson’s use of the word “whole,” as well as his italicization of the word “their.” The “whole American people” had declared that “their legislature” would make no laws establishing religion or inhibiting its exercise.

Why would Jefferson italicize “their” unless he meant to refer to the legislature of the “whole American people” only? That tells us that Jefferson recognized the First Amendment as binding on Congress but not on state legislatures.

In sum, could a seven-word phrase from a 222-year-old letter — written for a special purpose, expressing principles that denied the First Amendment’s applicability to the states  and responding to a letter that did the same — really keep a cornerstone of Western civilization out of public schools?

Leftists believe that it can. And they believe it because, as the ACLU tweet illustrated, they have relied on courts to ensure that it does.

In fact, in a brilliant 2006 essay, Daniel Dreisbach of the Heritage Foundation, author of the book, “Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State,” explained how federal courts spent decades twisting Jefferson’s casual “wall” metaphor into a “high and impregnable” barrier.

Ironically, the very mechanism on which “separation of church and state” advocates depend for the enforcement of the Jeffersonian phrase they have misinterpreted happens to be the very mechanism Jefferson himself most feared.

In an 1819 letter, Jefferson denounced the activist federal judiciary of his day. Courts, he argued, could not “usurp” the power to interpret the Constitution’s meaning. If they did, it would make the entire Constitution a “felo de se” — an act of suicide.

“For intending to establish three departments, coordinate and independant, that they might check and balance one another, it has given, according to this opinion, to one of them alone the right to prescribe rules for the government of the others; and to that one too which is unelected by, and independent of, the nation,” he wrote.

Thus, outraged leftists who hope to invalidate Louisiana’s Ten Commandments law based on their own misunderstanding or distortion of Jefferson’s famous phrase will find that Jefferson himself refutes them at every turn.

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Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.
Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.