The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Letter from the National Liberal League

In 1878, Francis E. Abbot , representing the National Liberal League, wrote the following letter to Senator George F. Edmunds.

Researched and edited by Jim Allison

Francis E. Abbot
Boston, Mass., Jan. 21, 1878

Hen. George F. Edmunds,
Chairman Judiciary Committee,
United States Senate:

In obedience to instructions of the Directors of the National Liberal League, of which I have the honor to be President, I take the liberty of addressing you with reference to the pending Constitutional amendment on sectarian appropriations, which we have just learned from the press to be under consideration by your honorable Committee. I venture to add that your niece, Mrs. Meddaugh, of Detroit, and her husband, have been for years intimate and dear friends of mine, and I trust that their kind regard will secure to me your own kind attention in what I have to say.

Every unselfish friend of his country who appreciates the unspeakable importance of the measure now proposed must look with the utmost anxiety to the action of your honorable Committee with reference to it. I am sure that you are too just and too fairminded not to listen with Patience and respect to the views of those whom I have the honor to represent, even though they may not coincide with your own. The enclosed form of petition for a Religious Freedom Amendment will show you what these views are: This petition has received 10,660 signatures at this date, and will be forwarded for presentation to the Senate when the time arrives. This fact may show how deep an interest in this question is taken by very many citizens, and that on another side than is usually presented to the public.

The whole pith and purport of the movement I now represent is to establish equal rights in religion, so far as the laws under which all must live are concerned. Our government is not for Christians alone, but also for vast multitudes who are not covered by that name. If the government should allow partiality to Christianity, it would compel all to pay homage to a religion which is not the religion of all; for all are taxed for the government's support. Just as you, Sir, would feel yourself oppressed to be taxed for the support of Mohammedanism if you lived in Turkey, so would Jews and non-Christians feel oppressed to be taxed for the support of Christianity. Surely the Golden Rule itself should teach us how to deal with this question. I am not pleading for any privilege or advantage for non-Christians over Christians--far from it! I only plead for impartial justice towards both; I only beg you, who will be so influential in this matter, to rise above the partialities of your own individual faith, and throw your influence so as to help enact righteous, equal and impartial justice, towards those of all faiths, however unlike.

Whatever amendment, therefore, your honorable Committee may submit to the Senate, may I not beg you to keep it free, if possible, from any clause or proviso which would except the Bible in the schools or church-property from the operation of the general policy that no sectarian appropriations shall be permitted from the public funds? In this great country, with its mighty future, Christianity itself is a sect,--much more is Protestant Christianity a sect; and the proviso of the bill of 1876 which almost passed the Senate, by excepting the Bible and church property from the scope of the bill would have established sectarian exceptions to a wise, just, and equitable principle which ought to be universal in its application. Surely the policy of impartial justice to all citizens, of all,beliefs respecting religion, is the only possible policy of a really sagacious and patriotic statesmanship. Any other policy will leave a sense of wrong to rankle in many minds; and in the long run any religion, even Christianity, will lose ground by identifying itself with Public injustice. Is it not wiser to do nothing than to introduce a wholly new principle into the Constitution,--one that would undertake to protect existing usages against which the better conscience of the people is already beginning to protest,--one which would give Christianity a legal foothold in a great charter designed to Protect the rights of Christians and non-Christians as equal before the law? My whole soul is stirred with concern at the prospect of seeing the secularity of the Constitution destroyed, in order to give a great and unfair advantage to one class of citizens over all others. You who are Christians will earn the eternal applause of all virtuous men, if you show yourselves superior to the temptation of seizing supremacy for your creed at the expense of justice. Let there be no sectarian appropriations; do not, I beg you, neutralize that great principle by indirectly, but most effectually, making an exception in favor of your own Protestant Christian creed. For that will be the inevitable practical result of the former bill, if now renewed.

With profound respect, Sir,<.p>

I am your obedient servant,

Francis E. Abbot.

Source of Information:

Cornerstones of Religious Freedom in America, edited, with an introduction and interpretations by Joseph L. Blau. Harper Torchbook/ The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, Evanston and London (1964) pp. 230-232)
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