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Religious laws

The first amendment to the
U.S. Constitution: Religious aspects

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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."

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Its origins in the Virginia bill on religious freedom:

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

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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:

bullet Decided that there would be no religious test, oath or other requirement for any federal elected office.

bullet Allowed Quakers and others to affirm (rather than swear) their oaths of office.

bullet Refrained from recognizing the religion of Christianity, or one of its denominations, as an established, state church.

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.

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The text of the First Amendment:

Some early draft amendments to the religion section were:

bullet 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."

bullet House Select Committee, JUL-28 "No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed,"

bullet Samuel Livermore, AUG-15 "Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience."

bullet 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)

bullet Initial Senate version, SEP-3 "Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

bullet 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 religion."

bullet 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.

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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 stated:

"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:

bullet Laws interpreted as requiring a divorce if a husband writes a book that is critical of the established state religion.
bullet Capital punishment as punishment for speech critical of the state religion.
bullet Capital punishment for those who change their religious faith, unless it is to the state religion.
bullet 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.

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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:

bullet 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.' "

bullet 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? "

bullet "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

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Related essays on this website:

bullet The "wall of separation" between church and state

bullet Menu linked to essays on school prayer, wearing of religious jewelry, etc.

bullet Posting the Ten Commandments in public schools

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Book references

  1. 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).
  2. E.S. Gaustad, "Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation", Harper & Row, New York NY, (1987)
  3. A.A. Lipscomb & A.E. Bergh, editors, "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson", Washington, (1907), Vol. 16, P. 281
  4. Dave Clark, "Survey: First Amendment support waning," at: 

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Internet References:

bullet The Freedom Forum Online web site provides detailed coverage of First Amendment issues. See:
bullet "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: (Last updated in 2004)
bullet "First Amendment Center" promotes consensus on matters of religious expression in the schools, and religious liberty in American life. See:
bullet TeAchnology is a "web portal for educators." Their U.S. Constitution Teaching Theme page has many hyperlinks to Constitution resources at:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2018-MAY-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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