When the Supreme Court first considered the issue of aid to parochial schools in the 1947 case
Everson v. Board of Education
, it invoked separation as a limiting principle. The court quoted Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn.: “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 and state.”
Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, suspicious of organized religion. He believed that efforts to establish an official religion led to persecution and civil war.
The metaphor was not original to Jefferson, though. Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island on principles of religious tolerance, used it in 1644. History has shown, he observed, that when churches “have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall . . . and made his garden a wilderness.”
Williams had different reasons than Jefferson for preaching separation. Jefferson thought that religion was bad for government. Williams thought that mixing church and state was bad for the church.
These two perspectives often give us the same results. They both warn against tax support for churches and against prayers composed by public school boards. But Williams’s theological metaphor may have been more influential than Jefferson’s political one in the adoption of the First Amendment.
I think this has a bearing on a neglected aspect of the HHS rules — not the mandate itself, but the exemption for a “religious employer.” It defines that term to mean an organization that exists to inculcate religious values, that is exempt from filing a tax return and that primarily employs and serves people who share its religious tenets.
This is a remarkably narrow view of religion. It excludes the social service organization Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals and Catholic University. It excludes the Little Sisters of the Poor, who care for the aged of all faiths, and some Cristo Rey Catholic high schools, which admit students of all faiths. These institutions exist to perform what Catholics call “corporal works of mercy” — to care for the poor, hungry, sick and homeless — and to preach the Gospel not just to their baptized members but “to all nations,” as the Gospel says.