A 'Wall of Separation'
A century and a half after the witchcraft crisis in Salem, two of our Founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison , spent nine years convincing the Virginia legislature to pass a law that would separate church and state. It has been called "the most revolutionary experiment on which the new United States embarked." Thomas Jefferson said it was "the severest contest in which I have ever been engaged."
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Jefferson wrote, saidofficiallythat governments have no business telling their citizens what to believe. And that you didn't have to belong to a state church to hold public office . These Framers were separating religion from politics. Religion, not morality. Another Virginian, George Mason, had proposed a bill that guaranteed religious "tolerance." James Madison suggested that the word tolerance be changed to "the free exercise of religion." That was an important difference. Here are some words from Jefferson's great document: "Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself … errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them."
A government and its citizens' religions should be separated, Jefferson said. The power of government should only extend to acts that hurt others. He added: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg."
Jefferson, like Roger Williams before him, called it freedom of conscience. That was a daring idea in the eighteenth century. The Virginia statute's separation of church and statewhich became the law of the land when James Madison wrote the First Amendment to the Constitutionis the foundation on which our religious freedom is based. Some say it is the basis for all other freedoms.