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24 scholars rebut Library of Congress on Jefferson paper.

Two dozen of the nation's leading authorities on church-state separation and the presidency of Thomas Jefferson have issued a joint letter rebutting a Library of Congress paper that attacked Jefferson's famous "wall of separation between church and state" metaphor.

The controversy started last June when the Library of Congress opened a new exhibit, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." At the exhibit's kickoff, Library officials issued a paper by James Hutson, chief of the Library's manuscript division, purporting to present new information about Jeffer son's "wall" metaphor.

Jefferson used the phrase in a Jan. 1, 1802, letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association. Responding to the Association's concerns over the state of religious freedom in Connecticut, Jefferson wrote, "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."

In his essay, Hutson asserted that Jefferson wrote the letter as a political exercise to strike back at Federalists who had accused him of being an atheist during the campaign of 1800. The paper makes much of passages Jefferson had crossed out in a draft of the letter that were recently made legible by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Religious Right groups were quick to seize on Hutson's paper. The Christian Coalition promptly issued a press release headlined, "Library of Congress Skewers 'Wall of Separation' Myth." Focus on the Family's Citizen magazine in August asserted that Jefferson's "famous wall of separation...may be a flimsy structure after all."

In the July 29 rebuttal letter, 24 scholars charged that Hutson's essay "yields an unbalanced treatment of this important topic on the basis of questionable analysis that has not, as far as is known, been subjected to independent scholarly review." The scholars also criticized Hutson's effort to interpret the Danbury letter on the basis of deleted passages, saying he has read too much into a few phrases that Jefferson left out.

Asserts the letter, "The Jefferson phrase 'thus building a wall of separation between church and state' is familiar to millions of Americans and is regularly thought of as a convenient way to describe the scope and effect of the religion clauses of the First Amendment .... We have no hesitation in asserting that it was an extraordinary affirmation befitting the best spirit in our republican democracy."

Concludes the letter, "We strongly disagree with the conclusions reached by the Library of Congress and urge the Library staff to refrain from presenting those conclusions as settled fact."

The letter was drafted by Robert S. Alley, an Americans United trustee and emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Richmond as well as the author of several books on church-state relations, and Robert M. O'Neil, professor of law at the University of Virginia and an acknowledged authority on Jefferson.

Americans United's Communications Department worked with Alley to circulate a press release about the response letter among the national media. The Associated Press picked up the story July 30, and the next day it appeared in USA Today and other major newspapers all over the country. In addition, columnists for the Boston Globe and Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote essays about the controversy.

To read the letter and see the full list of signers, visit Americans United's website at and click on "Press Releases."
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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