In matters of Religion, I have considered that it’s free exercise is placed by the constitution independant of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it: but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction & discipline of the state or church authorities acknoleged by the several religious societies.
Second Inaugural Address, March 5, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders respect firm boundaries on their authority.
Jefferson reiterated a familiar theme, that the Constitution prohibited the federal government’s involvement in religion, either to promote or inhibit its exercise. That authority was left to the states and the churches within them. For that reason, as President, he had proclaimed no national days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving.
Twenty years before, Jefferson’s ban on state involvement in religion was adopted in Virginia. He claimed that as one of three accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered and had it recorded on his tombstone. He held that government authority extended only to an individual’s actions, not his thoughts or beliefs. That left religious practice entirely to the individual.