Backers of faith-based initiatives say that rules against state support for religion are a recent invention of activist judges. But when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark church-state case in 1947, it was careful to ground its decision in the words of our third president.
Jefferson was hardly hostile to religion. In his first Inaugural Address, he called God "an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter." But when the Danbury Baptist Association, a Connecticut religious group, asked him to declare a national fast day, he refused, citing his conviction that "religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God," and his view of the First Amendment as "building a wall of separation between church and state."
Jefferson saw freedom of conscience as paramount. "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful," he wrote in "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom." He also feared that if the churches were united with government, the result would be tyranny.