The first myth is that of church-state separation, which claims that the First Amendment separated church and state for the protection of each from the other and the mutual prosperity of both. Liberal writers love to point to Thomas Jefferson, who first coined the “wall of separation” metaphor that made its way into mid-20th-century church-state jurisprudence, and to James Madison, Jefferson’s protégé and the architect of the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. And liberals are correct when they suggest that Madison and Jefferson supported an absolute separation of church and state. But the First Amendment did not create the separation for which Madison and Jefferson hoped. Its religion clauses (like the rest of the Bill of Rights) did not apply to the states until 1940. Since almost all church-state issues emerged on the state level, the First Amendment did not apply. And, contrary to the myth of separation, states were free to do any number of things that surprise us today. They could pay churches out of the public treasury, as some did until well into the antebellum period. They could prosecute for blasphemy against the Christian God. They could establish laws that favored churches as the originators of charitable institutions. They could prosecute violations of the Christian Sabbath. They could require public Bible-reading and prayer in the name of Jesus Christ in public schools. They could do all of this and more — and they did — without violating the First Amendment.

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