The first amendment to the
U.S. Constitution: Religious aspects
What it says:
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is also the first section of the Bill of Rights. It is arguably the most important part of the U.S. Constitution,
as it guarantees freedoms of religion, speech, writing and publishing, peaceful
assembly, and the freedom to raise grievances with the Government. In
addition, it requires that a wall of separation be maintained between church and
state. It reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the
press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government
for a redress of grievances."
The roots of the First Amendment can be traced to a bill written
by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in 1777 and proposed to the Virginia Legislature in
1779. 1It guaranteed freedom of (and from) religion. After an
impassioned speech by James Madison, and after some amendments, it became
law in that state on 1786-JAN-16. 2
How the first amendment was written:
In the spring of 1778, the Constitutional Convention was held in
Philadelphia, PA. They
resolved three main religious controversies. They:
Decided that there would be no religious test, oath or other requirement for any federal
Allowed Quakers and others to affirm (rather than swear) their oaths of office.
Refrained from recognizing the religion of Christianity, or one of its denominations, as an established,
But there was no specific guarantee of religious freedom.
Jefferson was pleased with the constitution, but felt it was incomplete. He pushed for
legislation that would guarantee individual rights, including what he felt was the prime
guarantee: freedom of and from religion. Madison promised to promote such a bill, in order
to gain support for the ratification of the constitution by the State of Virginia. In
1789, the first of ten amendments were written to the constitution; they have since been
known as the Bill of Rights.
The text of the First Amendment:
Some early draft amendments to the religion section were:
James Madison, 1789-JUN-7 "The Civil Rights of none shall be abridged on
account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established,
nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext
infringed. No state shall violate the equal rights of conscience or the freedom of the
press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases."
House Select Committee, JUL-28 "No religion shall be established by law,
nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed,"
Samuel Livermore, AUG-15 "Congress shall make no laws touching religion,
or infringing the rights of conscience."
House version, AUG-20 "Congress shall make no law establishing religion,
or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience." (Moved by Fisher Ames)
Initial Senate version, SEP-3 "Congress shall make no law establishing
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Final Senate version, SEP-9 "Congress shall make no law establishing
articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of
Conference Committee "Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The final wording was accepted by the House of Representatives on 1789-SEP-24; and by
the Senate on 1789-SEP-25. It was ratified by the States in 1791.
The "Wall of Separation" concept:
Shortly after Thomas Jefferson was elected president, some Baptists from Connecticut asked
that he declare a national day of fasting in order to help the country recover from a
bitterly fought presidential campaign. He disagreed, feeling that the Federal government should not
recognize a day set aside for religious reasons. In his reply of 1802-JAN-1, he
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and
his God, that he owes to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative
powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn
reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature
should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State." 3 (emphasis ours)
The "wall of separation" term has become a common expression to
describe the concept pioneered in the United States that the government and churches
should keep out of each other's way. Unfortunately, this has been interpreted by
many teachers, principals and school boards so strictly
in recent years that religion has become a forbidden topic in many public schools. As a
result, many public schools have become religion-free zones. Many children are only partially educated; they remain ignorant of the immense
impact, both for good and for evil, that religion has had on the American culture throughout history, and elsewhere in the world. For the past century, it would appear that just about every significant conflict has had a religious dimension.
Religious minorities frequently suffer a loss of freedom
in those countries which do not have a wall of separation. Some extreme examples
in the past decade have been:
Laws interpreted as requiring a divorce if a husband writes a book that is
critical of the established state religion.
Capital punishment as punishment for speech critical of the state
Capital punishment for those who change their religious faith, unless it
is to the state religion.
Laws originating in a religion that prohibited women from working outside the home.
In 1986, on the 200th anniversary of Virginia's call for a Bill of Rights, 200
American leaders signed the Williamsburg Charter reaffirming their
belief in the importance of the First Amendment.
In 1995, President Clinton delivered an important speech affirming the importance of religious freedom.
Current support for the First Amendment:
The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in
Nashville, TN occasionally conducts a public opinion
poll. The results for the year 2000 show that support for
first amendment freedoms is not particularly strong in some areas. First
Amendment Center director, Kenneth Paulson, said that "While
Americans respect the First Amendment as an ideal, increasingly they're
ambivalent when it protects offensive ideas or troubling speech or art or music."
The results for their poll taken in 2000 show:
Two thirds of American adults favor the banning of hate speech. This
troubles many civil rights supporters. As Ken Paulson said: "The problem with that is
it's so easy to characterize what someone else says that offends you
as 'hate speech.' "
53% favor the banning of speech critical of religions. [Author's
note: That is particularly troubling because it would criminalize even
the most innocuous criticism of racist, sexist, and homophobic
policies established by
religious groups.] Paulson said. "That's an astonishing
number. Are we really ready to say that you can't talk about religion
in the public sector because it might offend someone of another faith? "
"37% of those polled couldn't name even one of the five
freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Those freedoms are: the
right to worship, speak, publish, assemble, and raise grievances with
the government." 4
Related essays on this website:
- James Davidson and Os Guiness, editors, "Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace:
The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy". Hunter,
Washington DC (1990).
- E.S. Gaustad, "Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation",
Harper & Row, New York NY, (1987)
- A.A. Lipscomb & A.E. Bergh, editors, "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson",
Washington, (1907), Vol. 16, P. 281
- Dave Clark, "Survey: First Amendment support waning," at: http://www.family.org/
The Freedom Forum Online web site provides detailed coverage of
First Amendment issues. See: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/
"First Amendment Cyber-Tribune" is hosted by the Casper
Star-Tribune. It is an extensive site, describing all aspects of First
Amendment rights. It also lists dozens of free-speech web sites and groups.
See: http://fact.trib.com/ (Last updated
"First Amendment Center" promotes consensus on matters of religious expression
in the schools, and religious liberty in American life. See: http://www.fac.org/
TeAchnology is a "web portal for educators." Their U.S.
Constitution Teaching Theme page has many hyperlinks to Constitution
resources at: http://www.teach-nology.com/
Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Latest update: 2010-JUL-03
Author: B.A. Robinson