Leo Pfeffer

On this date in 1910, Leo Pfeffer, the 20th century's leading legal proponent of the separation of church and state, was born in Hungary, and came to the United States at age two. He was raised a Conservative Jew and remained a synagogue-goer, yet quipped that "the Orthodox consider me to be the worst enemy they've had since Haman in the Purim story!" (speech before FFRF, see quote below.) His masterpiece, Church State and Freedom, first published by Beacon Press in 1953, is the ultimate sourcebook for the history of the evolution of the all-American principle of the separation of church and state. His eight books include The Liberties of an American: The Supreme Court Speaks (1956), Religious Freedom (1977), and Religion, State & the Burger Court (1985). Pfeffer called himself a "strict separationist in contrast to what is called 'accommodationist.' " Pfeffer pleaded "partly guilty" to inadvertently perpetuating the myth that "secular humanism" is a religion. In defending nontheist Roy Torcaso before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Torcaso's case challenging a religious test in Maryland to become a notary public, Pfeffer wrote that "there are religions which are not based on the existence of a personal deity." His examples: ethical culturists, Buddhists and Confucians. "My good friend Justice Black thought that wasn't good enough. He put in the secular humanists. Who told him secular humanism? I didn't have it in my brief! I couldn't sue, because you can't sue a justice of the Supreme Court. But since then I rued the day" (Freethought Today, Jan/Feb 1986). Pfeffer worked as associate general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, wrote many briefs submitted before the U.S. Supreme Court in civil liberties cases, and was the Establishment Clause's best friend. D. 1993.

“I believe that complete separation of church and state is one of those miraculous things which can be best for religion and best for the state, and the best for those who are religious and those who are not religious.

I believe that the history of the First Amendment and also the Constitution itself, which forbids religious tests for public office, have testified to the healthful endurance of a principle which is the greatest treasure the United States has given the world: the principle of complete separation of church and state. I'm here to tell you that that principle is endangered today. ”

—Leo Pfeffer, speech on Sept. 29, 1985, before the 8th national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Reprinted in Freethought Today, Jan/Feb 1986.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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