In the history of church-state separation, certain dates are special: On Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was officially ratified. On Jan. 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists containing the famous "wall of separation between church and state" metaphor. The U.S. Supreme Court spoke strongly in favor of separation in Everson v. Board of Education, issued on Feb. 10, 1947.
This weekend, a less well-known but equally important anniversary will take place: On Feb. 21, 1811, President James Madison vetoed a bill that would have officially incorporated an Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia and charged it with caring for the poor. The measure had been passed by Congress, but Madison would have none of it.
In his veto message, issued 198 years ago tomorrow, Madison explained why: "[T]he bill," he wrote, "exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions, and violates in particular the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"
Elsewhere in the message, Madison added, "[T]he bill vests in the said incorporated church an authority to provide for the support of the poor and the education of poor children of the same, an authority which, being altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity, would be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty."
Hmmm. Sounds like Madison was no fan of "faith-based" initiatives! Just to be clear: This bill didn't give any tax money to the church, and Madison still vetoed it. Any kind of official charge from government to a church, he argued, violated the First Amendment.
Madison knew what he was talking about when it comes to the Bill of Rights. He was a key architect of the First Amendment, after all. Even today, there are those who argue that all Madison intended was for there to be no national church. This veto message makes hash of that argument.
Lots of people today share Madison's views. The Anti-Defamation League just sent a letter to President Barack Obama, expressing concerns about his faith-based initiative.
I suspect veteran D.C. journalist Helen Thomas is also a Madison fan. In a recent column, she criticized Obama for his faith-based approach, noting that it fails "to provide safeguards against the blurring of separation of church and state."
If you feel like celebrating Madison's vision, here's an easy way to do so: Take a minute to let President Obama know that you think he's off course on the faith-based initiative. You can send your thoughts to the White House via an Action Alert on AU's Web site or e-mail (using this contact form).
You can also write to the president at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20500 or call the White House comment line at (202) 456-1111.
Americans United has just posted information on its homepage giving you all the background you need about the faith-based initiative and why the Obama approach is misguided. See it here.
The best way to honor Madison is to stand up for the principles he supported. I hope you'll take some time to do that today.