Jefferson letter spurs fresh debate on school prayer 1802 document is part of Smithsonian traveling exhibit

November 04, 1998|By Laurie Goodman | Laurie Goodman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A renowned letter by Thomas Jefferson, which is the highlight of a traveling Library of Congress exhibition intended as a historical survey of religion and the founding of the nation, has been seized upon by conservative Christian leaders as support for their campaign for classroom prayer, taxpayer-financed vouchers for religious schools and posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms.

Some conservative groups and scholars say the library's analysis of Jefferson's letter is authoritative evidence that could be used in the courts to knock down the barrier between religion and government.

At the heart of the exhibition and of the controversy is a famous letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In it, the nation's third president coined the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State." Jefferson's letter has been used in Supreme Court cases for more than a century to describe the proper relationship between religion and government.

The Library of Congress' analysis of the Jefferson letter, released at a news conference in May and written by James Hutson, chief of the library's manuscript division, asserted that Jefferson never meant his letter to be used as the foundation for law, but instead was aimed at winning political favor with New England constituents. Hutson's analysis said: "The Danbury Baptist Letter was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more."

The conservative leaders said this was proof that Jefferson's "wall" metaphor should never have been interpreted as an overarching principle. The Christian Coalition immediately issued a news release headlined "Library of Congress Skewers 'Wall of Separation' Myth," and said the library's findings should bolster the campaign for the "religious freedom amendment." The magazine of Focus on the Family, a multimedia ministry, called Jefferson's wall "flimsy." Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council wrote that Jefferson's words had been "twisted by liberals."

And in August the controversy ricocheted from Christian radio to the ivory tower, when 24 legal scholars and historians sent a letter to the library complaining that its interpretation of the Jefferson letter was misleading and "unbalanced."

"We are concerned for really one fundamental reason," said Robert Alley, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Richmond and one of two scholars who drafted the letter to the library. "If you're going to be the keeper of the precious documents of the nation, you ought not to put them on display with biased analysis, and certainly not with a paper that has not been read by its peers and judged for its qualities, and with as many egregious observations of opinion."

'Last thing we want'

In an interview at the Library of Congress, Hutson, caretaker of the library's manuscripts for 16 years, said he was amazed that a brief paper he wrote as a "press primer" without footnotes had been caught up in a tug of war with national policy implications. "The last thing we want to do here is offer opinions on constitutional law," Hutson said, his face flushing.

Hutson is 61, a Presbyterian churchgoer, a Yale graduate and an expert on Benjamin Franklin. He said he was chagrined that the uproar had overshadowed the 211 other documents and artifacts he painstakingly collected for the exhibition. He said he would not repudiate the thesis of his paper, but added, "Maybe I should have been more careful, but I really did try to guard against anything like this happening."

The tempest began when Hutson set out to decipher the blotted-out lines in the first draft of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. The final version says that "religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions." Jefferson restated the First Amendment's religion clause, and followed with the words "thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

Hutson asked the FBI to use its computer laboratory to uncover the inked-out words in Jefferson's letter, just as the bureau had done with a diary of Theodore Roosevelt's.

In doing so, Hutson was performing excavation on a document that is a touchstone of American history. The "wall of separation" metaphor, though not found in the Constitution, is often invoked as shorthand for the religion clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

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