Thomas Jefferson, as a tavern placemat reminded me the other day, imported America’s first pasta machine.

He’d fallen in love with “macaroni” while touring Italy as our minister to France, tasted many varieties and copied the design of a hand-cranked machine. Before leaving Europe, he bought a pasta maker to bring home.

But Jefferson, the great adapter, borrowed more than just fine cuisine.

Late last week, as atheist students protested Duquesne University’s decision to deny their group official recognition and as Bishop David Zubik blessed the “Pittsburgh Creche” at U.S. Steel Plaza, I came across what’s surely the pithiest of Jefferson’s many presentations of the Reformation principle of separation of church and state:

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” he wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1785). “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

That final sentence is as clear and succinct a standard for evaluating church-state conflicts as we’re likely to find. Both Duquesne’s decision and the creche’s location illustrate it.

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