I think it was an error in our officer to shut the doors of the church, & in the Governor to refer it to the Roman catholic head. The priests must settle their differences in their own way, provided they commit no breach of the peace. If they break the peace they should be arrested. On our principles all church-discipline is voluntary; and never to be enforced by the public authority; but on the contrary to be punished when it extends to acts of force. The Govr. should restore the keys of the church to the priest who was in possession.
To James Madison, July 5, 1804
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Constitutional leaders protect people’s rights to protest peacefully.
Louisiana Governor Claiborne wrote to Secretary of State Madison about strongly disputing factions within a Catholic Church in New Orleans. A local officer, fearing the public might be endangered, locked the church doors, forbade either side entrance, and asked a more senior official in the Church to decide the matter.
Jefferson called this a mistake. Disputants within the church who broke no laws were not subject to any government action. This was the same theme as in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted more than 20 years before. That law, which dis-established the official church in his home state, limited government involvement in church affairs to people’s illegal actions only. In 1790, the First Amendment to the Constitution clearly tied the national government’s hands in most church matters.
The President ordered the return of the church’s keys.