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"Separation of church and state" is probably a familiar phrase. While it's one of the most frequently debated issues about the Constitution, those exact words don't even appear in the original document. How well do you know the history of God and government in the United States? Learn about it below. Tell us what you think in our Take Part section.

The Constitution was totally silent on the subject of religion. The framers established no national church; delegates of the Constitutional Convention believed that religion was a matter best left to the states. The only mention of religion in the Constitution was that there should be no "religious test" required by any federal officeholders and that one could "affirm" rather than "swear" in taking the oath of office.

Thomas Jefferson was in Paris at the time the Constitution was being drafted. James Madison, who was a strong proponent of leaving religion up to the states, sent him a copy. Jefferson was unhappy with the omission of some form of bill of rights "providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for the freedom of religion."

Bill of Rights
"The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Two things were guaranteed: that Congress will not favor, promote, or endow religion; and that Congress shall not impede, obstruct or penalize religion. Government would simply leave religion alone. However, the language in the Bill of Rights was still vague and open to interpretation.

Jefferson's letter
Unlike his predecessors Presidents Washington and Adams, Thomas Jefferson opposed Presidential proclamations for prayer, fasting and thanksgiving. Well-known for his unorthodox religious opinions as well as for his liberal views on religious liberty and the separation of church and state, Jefferson was the writer of Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, which ended all practice of state-supported religion in Virginia when it was enacted into law in 1786.

Jefferson was the one who coined the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, in which he described his understanding of the meaning of the religious clauses of the First Amendment.

Read the text of Jefferson's letter.

Text of court decision

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the separation of church and state and used Jefferson's letter for the court opinion. Justice Black said, "That wall must be kept high and impregnable." Most of the Supreme Court's church-state decisions handed down since this case have been grounded in the Everson standard. Of course, this Supreme Court case was far from the end of the story.

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