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Library Of Congress Curator Backs Off Jefferson Paper.

A curator at the Library of Congress who issued a paper minimizing the importance of Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" metaphor has retreated from some of his claims.

James Hutson, chief of the Library's manuscript division, released the paper last June to kickoff an LOC exhibit titled "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." In the essay, Hutson charged that Jefferson's famous 1802 missive to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association in which Jefferson spoke favorably of the "wall," was merely an attempt to respond to his political enemies, not make a statement about fundamental constitutional principles.

Jefferson wrote the famous letter on Jan. 1, 1802. In it he observed, "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."

Hutson's views are at sharp odds with most Jefferson scholars. On July 29 two dozen church-state, religion and Jefferson scholars, led by University of Richmond Professor Emeritus Robert S. Alley and Prof. Robert M. O'Neil of the law school of the University of Virginia, issued a paper rebutting Hutson's conclusions. The scholars called on the Library of Congress to cease presenting Hutson's conclusions as settled fact.

Several Religious Right groups, including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Fan-lily (FOF), seized on Hutson's original paper, citing it as "proof' that Jefferson never meant to erect a wall of separation between church and state. Last October a photo of Hutson along with a glowing article about his claims appeared in FOF's Citizen magazine.

On Jan. 5 Hutson appeared at the Freedom Forum World Center in Arlington, Va., where he read a revised version of the paper backing off from some of his claims. The Freedom Forum's web-based publication free! reported that Hutson called his paper "casually written" and conceded that he is not a religious liberty expert. He also said he wanted to quell the "unfortunate sideshow" his paper has sparked.

"My view of the wall of separation ... is that it is impenetrable, but punctuated by checkpoints, allowing religion to pass through ... provided that it treats everyone equally who wanted to come along," Hutson said.

Alley and Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green attended the Jan. 5 event and challenged Hutson's conclusions. Green, who recently completed a doctorate in church-state studies, told Hutson that he had failed to take Jefferson's entire thinking on churchstate separation into account.

Green pointed out that Jefferson's actions and his other writings prove beyond a doubt that he was a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. "Thomas Jefferson personally labored to end state-established religion in Virginia," Green told Church & State. "He regarded religious freedom and church-state separation in Virginia as one of his major accomplishments, more important even than serving as president for eight years."

Continued Green, "Hutson's analysis of the Danbury letter is deeply flawed. But he is equally mistaken in trying to determine Jefferson's philosophy on the basis of one document. To really assess Jefferson's views on church and state, you must examine his life's actions and writings. Any honest examination of this material leaves no doubt that Jefferson stood foursquare in favor of the separation of religion and government."
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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