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Library Of Congress Questions Jefferson's `Wall' Letter.

A new critique of Thomas Jefferson's 1802 "wall of separation" letter has been launched from an unexpected source: the Library of Congress.

Last month the Library of Congress opened a new exhibit titled "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." At a press conference announcing the event, James Hutson, chief of the Library's manuscript division, distributed a nine-page paper he authored downplaying the significance of Jefferson's letter as a statement of constitutional policy.

Jefferson wrote the missive on Jan. 1, 1802, in response to a letter he had received from the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association. Members of the Association, who were angry that they still had to pay taxes to support the Congregational Church in Connecticut, wrote to congratulate Jefferson on his election as president and express hope that the First Amendment's religion provisions would one day apply to the states.

In his reply, 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."

Hutson asserts 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. It was written, Hutson charges, "as a partisan counterpunch, aimed by Jefferson below the belt at enemies who were tormenting him more than a decade after the First Amendment was composed."

In his paper, Hutson makes much of the fact that Jefferson crossed out several words and phrases from the draft of his reply. The Library of Congress asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to use new technology to determine what Jefferson crossed out.

Critics say Hutson is making too much of the deleted material, which does not change the thrust of the letter, and assert he has merely recycled old, discredited arguments against the Danbury missive. They note that Jefferson obviously did intend the letter to be a policy statement, since he ran it by his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, and stated in a cover letter to Lincoln that he had been looking for an opportunity to explain his views on church-state relations.

Nevertheless, Religious Right groups were quick to seize upon Hutson's paper. On June 2, the Christian Coalition issued a press release headlined, "Library of Congress Skewers `Wall of Separation' Myth." Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate said Hutson's paper proves why the country should adopt the so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment" (RFA) that was then pending in the House of Representatives.

In California, LaTanya Wright, a Religious Right-backed member of the Academic Standards Commission, cited Hutson's paper in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to remove references to church-state separation from proposed statewide history guidelines for public schools.

In a June 17 letter to James Billington, librarian of Congress, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn urged the Library to issue a public statement acknowledging that Hutson's research reflects only his view and that other scholars have reached the opposite conclusion. Lynn also urged the Library to disavow any political intent in releasing the paper just days before the vote on the RFA.

"It is simply not appropriate for the Library of Congress to take sides on political issues like this," Lynn wrote. "While Dr. Hutson certainly has the right to conduct research into any areas he chooses, it is inappropriate for the Library to present the results of his research to the news media and the general public as the final word on the subject when in fact his findings are highly controversial and are disputed by many other scholars."
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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