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Letter to Danbury Baptists (1802)

Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a Baptist Church from Danbury, Connecticut, in which he explained his beliefs about federalism and the meaning of the Establishment Clause. Jefferson did not address the subject of state-sponsored churches, but assured the congregation that the federal government could not interfere with their church or offer special favors to any particular sect.

He 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 & State.” This phrase became so famous that many have come to believe it is in the Constitution, though it is not.

Jefferson’s letter has been used by the Supreme Court, including Justice Hugo Black, as “almost an authoritative declaration” as to the Founders’ intent for the Establishment Clause. However, Jefferson’s views on the First Amendment are complicated; two days after he sent the letter, he attended a church service conducted in the House of Representatives.