1st Amendment: American Liberty and Religion
According to the old adage, religion and politics are two things which must never be discussed in polite society. Many Americans seem to be taking the first part of this adage to heart as the little white country church, the Bible, and prayer are fast becoming archaic relics. The American Founders, however, viewed freedom of religion as an important part of society, and for this reason enshrined it in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.
With regards to religion, the 1st Amendment does two things. First, it bars Congress from making laws which respect an establishment of religion, thus preventing the government from showing favoritism to a certain set of religious beliefs. Secondly, it bars Congress from making laws which prohibit the free exercise of religion, meaning that Congress cannot prevent individuals from choosing their own religious beliefs and freely practicing them.
The importance the Founders placed on these two clauses likely stems from religion’s prominent role in America’s formation. Many of the colonies’ first settlers included religious groups such as the Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers (William Penn), and Baptists (Roger Williams), which sought a place to worship without persecution from government. Yet, even in early America, some of these groups met with strong resistance and intolerance. Many individual states even had established state-sponsored religions at the time of the American Revolution and beyond.
Virginia, however, took the lead in moving away from this practice. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson penned An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom which disestablished the Virginia state church, noting that forcing citizens to monetarily support opinions with which they did not agree was “sinful and tyrannical.” This document became a model for the 1st Amendment several years later.
Originally, the 1st Amendment only applied to the Federal government and encountered little, if any, resistance in court. But this changed with the arrival of the 14th Amendment, which says that no state can deprive a person of his or her liberties, including the liberty of religion. As a result many more religious liberty cases were brought to court in the 20th century. One of the most famous of these was Lemon v. Kurtzman which established the “Lemon Test,” a quick, 3-prong checklist which judges frequently reference in determining whether or not a law violates the Establishment Clause.
The 1st Amendment’s religion clauses are widely supported by both religious and non-religious citizens. Although not always the case, each camp seems to have a more favorite clause, causing them to sometimes overlook the other.
Many religiously-minded individuals naturally place more emphasis on the Free Exercise Clause. With the abolition of school prayer, the religiously-charged contraception mandate under Obamacare, and the gradual disappearance of religious symbols like 10 Commandment monuments, this group feels that free exercise of religion is being threatened. They tend to argue that the Establishment Clause was meant to protect individuals from being forced to support an established state church, but not intended to abolish religion from the public square. As proof of this, supporters point to the many statements by America’s Founders calling for public prayer and thanksgiving, and stressing the need for religion to ensure the survival of the nation.
Those in the more non-religious camp, however, tend to emphasize the Establishment Clause. They believe, as Justice Black once stated, that “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.” They also look to the Founders for justification, suggesting that leaders such as Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, and others were merely Deists or even Atheists, or at the very least sought to promote reason over faith.
Following Justice Black’s 1947 opinion in Everson v. Board of Education, Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” letter also became a major point of contention in the 1st Amendment debate. Opinions vary on how far the separation between church and state should go, with some declaring that the wall was meant to separate the church from interference by the state, while others suggest that it was meant to eradicate all religion from the public square. This last position, however, is debated by the ACLU, which declares that the wall of separation between church and state simply seeks to ensure that the government does not pick and choose which religions to support or discourage.
This topic presents a variety of articles and research on these opinions, while also explaining the meaning of the 1st Amendment’s religion clauses and the American Founders' interpretation of them.
More About This Topic...
Click thumbnails below to view links