From Establishment to Freedom of Public Religion

25 Pages Posted: 4 May 2004 Last revised: 13 Nov 2014


This Article juxtaposes the theories of religious liberty developed by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. It argues that Jefferson's notion of a "wall of separation between church and state" was a minority view in his day, and in the century to follow. More commonplace was Adams' view that balanced the freedom of all peaceable private religions with the "mild and equitable establishment" of one public religion. Adam's model of religious liberty dominated much of nineteenth-century law and culture, Jefferson's model a good bit of twentieth-century law and culture. In its most recent cases, the U.S. Supreme Court seems to be developing a new model of religious liberty that draws on the insights of both Jefferson and Adams, but rejects their respective calls for the privatization or the establishment of religion. The Court's formula is that both private and public forms of religion deserve constitutional freedom and support, though neither may be given preferential treatment.

Keywords: Public Religion, Establishment, Freedom, religous liberty, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, wall of separation, church and state, mild and equitable establishment, Supreme Court

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, From Establishment to Freedom of Public Religion. “From Establishment to Freedom of Public Religion,” Capital University Law Review 32 (2004): 499-518, Emory Public Law Research Paper No. 04-1, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)

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