How Jefferson Explained the Constitution to Louisiana Nuns

This week in 1804, Thomas Jefferson wrote to an Ursuline nun in New Orleans, who had asked him to clarify her religious community’s rights under U.S. law after the Louisiana Purchase. President Jefferson assured her that the American government would never interfere with the nuns’ property, ministries, or way of life.

Jefferson wrote, “The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.”

Two hundred ten years after Jefferson wrote that letter, a community of sisters who care for the elderly is defending in court their right to carry out their ministries in accordance with their faith. Under current federal regulations, the Little Sisters of the Poor don’t qualify for a religious exemption from the ObamaCare insurance mandate which requires most employers to provide contraception and abortion coverage.

Like the Ursuline nuns of Jefferson’s time, Catholic sisters today should not lose their religious freedom while working in their own ministries. We can imagine what Jefferson might think of American women having to sue the government to defend their First Amendment rights. But can we doubt he would be dismayed by how intrusive and coercive the federal government has become since the day he explained the safeguards of the American Constitution to a group of French nuns?

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

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