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Separation of Church and State - A sword or a shield?

As a lawyer, there are a few things that bother me when I watch TV or a movie. I am always bothered by the fact that a lawsuit is filed, goes to court, and is finished within a few days (FYI this is not how it really works). It also bothers me when you see an attorney practice one type of law in one episode and then practice another type of law in another episode (Again, this is not how it really works). One other thing that bothers me in movies and in TV shows when people think that the Bill of Rights or the Constitution state that there is to be a “Separation of Church and State.” In fact, a recent national poll showed that 69% of Americans believe that the first amendment says "Separation of Church and State." (If you haven’t caught the trend by now, this is not how it really works).


So if the Bill of Rights and the Constitution do not require a separation of church and state then where did this concept come from? The source of the phrase “Separation of Church and State” can be traced back to a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1802. In October 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to President Jefferson, and in their letter, they voiced some concerns about Religious Freedom. On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote a letter to them in which he added the phrase “Separation of Church and State.” In the letter, Jefferson explained that the First Amendment is a guardian of religious freedoms from government interference. Here is an excerpt from Jefferson's letter:

"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, prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."

Jefferson simply quotes the First Amendment then uses a metaphor, the "wall", to separate the government from interfering with religious practice. Notice that the First Amendment puts restrictions only on the Government, not the People! Even more telling is Jefferson’s actions after writing the letter. Three days after Jefferson wrote those words, he attended church in the largest congregation in North America at the time. This church held its weekly worship services on government property, in the House Chambers of the U.S. Capital Building. It wasn’t until later that the Warren Court re-interpreted the first amendment thus putting the restrictions on the People!


Today the government can stop you from praying in school, reading the scriptures in school, showing the Ten Commandments in school, or have religious displays at Christmas. This is quite different from the wall Jefferson envisioned, protecting the people from government interference with religious practice.

I find it interesting how the adversary took the idea of what was suppose to be a shield to religion and people’s beliefs and has turned it against us as a shield to cut down religion. I struggle with people that want a person to separate his/her beliefs from his/her public life, school life, and work life. If we truly believe in the gospel, the commandments, and the blessings we receive from it, we cannot just leave our religion at home or at church. It is something we carry around with us all the time as it is a part of us.

In a General Conference talk in 2011, President Monson shared a rhyme I learned in Primary that goes:

Dare to be a Mormon;
Dare to stand alone.
Dare to have a purpose firm;
Dare to make it known.

I hope that while we are told that we must put a wall between our beliefs and what we share in public, that we can take President Monson’s words to heart and dare to make our beliefs know.

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