Progressive Leftists and Secularists often use the historically instituted “separation of church and state” argument against legislation which prohibits or regulates certain moral actions. Abortion advocates often make the same argument to fend off objections made by religious groups.
Jamie, a woman whose story can be found on NARAL’s website, had an abortion for health reasons. She says this: “The pro-life/anti-choice movement is set on a religious ideal that should not be relevant to our law making body; separation of church and state… It is ridiculous that anyone would even challenge a person’s right to govern their own bodies!” Quite frankly, that argument is ill-founded, historically inaccurate, and absurd.
Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase back in 1802, when he responded to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut whose rights of religious practice were being infringed upon by the state legislature and the state’s established churches. The implication of the First Amendment, he wrote, built “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
The words “separation of church and state” cannot be found in the Constitution. The principle can be, but only as Jefferson originally meant it. Americans have no right to a “separation of church and state” as people use the argument today, which has come to imply a complete absence of religion in the public square, as it concerns matters of law. That is, those who use it typically want to see all references to religion removed from public discourse and delegitimize. There is no basis for that in Jefferson’s words, here in the letter or elsewhere in other writings.
We do have protection from laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause means there ought to be no state-sponsored church, as there was in Connecticut. The founders came from England, which had a state-sponsored church, namely the Anglican Church. They wanted to avoid precisely the establishment of a Church of America, so to speak. They had no intention of prohibiting religious convictions and principles from compelling legislation, only that the state not sponsor a specific church. Read that again.
The “separation of church and state” card is often played by those same people who play the “racist-bigot” card. Each is used indiscriminately, in cases where it may or may not apply, and is therefore rendered meaningless.
A more comprehensive of Jefferson’s letter and view of religion in public life can be found here.