The First Amendment: We Hardly Knew Ye
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… ~ First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
Wednesday was Constitution Day. On that day in 1787, the Founders formally signed and adopted the Constitution of these United States.
Four short years later, they adopted the Bill of Rights, which begins with the First Amendment, which in turn begins with the guarantee of religious liberty for practitioners of the Christian religion.
The First Amendment has been shredded, twisted and distorted beyond recognition and possibly beyond repair by activist courts, beginning in 1947. So it’s time for a brief primer on the meaning of the First Amendment as it came from the mind of the Founders. It’s a simple fact of interpretation that the First Amendment means what the Founders intended it to mean, nothing more, nothing less.
Here then is a brief and concise summary of what the Founders meant by the First Amendment. And by the way, since it has never been amended, not even by the 14th Amendment (a subject for another day), it means the same thing today as it meant on September 17, 1787.
First, the amendment applies only to Congress. “Congress shall make no law…” No other entity is restrained by the First Amendment. Since the amendment applies only to Congress, it is legally, historically and constitutionally impossible for a state, a county commission, a city council, a school board, a school principal, a school teacher or a student to violate the First Amendment. This is for one simple reason: none of them is Congress. Violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do.
There are only two things Congress can do to violate the First Amendment. If it doesn’t do either of these two things, it can do anything it wants with regard to religious expression, including hiring chaplains, declaring national days of prayer, declaring Years of the Bible and hosting church services in government buildings, as Thomas Jefferson was wont to do.
Congress is forbidden from enacting a “law respecting an establishment of religion,” that is, a law that enshrines one Christian denomination above all the others, makes it the official church of the United States and requires citizens to support it with their tax dollars.
By “religion,” it is clear that the Founders meant only the various denominational expressions of Christianity. The Founders were dealing exclusively with Christianity in the First Amendment.
As Joseph Story said in his monumental history of the Constitution, “The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and prevent any national ecclesiastical patronage of the national government.” (Emphasis mine.)
Other religions, such as Islam, have no specific First Amendment rights since the Founders weren’t even addressing alternatives to Christianity. Dealing with other religions was a matter for the states, not the central government. Other religions do, of course, have the presumption of religious liberty in America. As long as they behave themselves and don’t trouble society, society will not trouble them. But if any one of them – say, Islam – proves troublesome, states have all the authority they need to deal with the trouble.
At the time of the Founding, nine of the 13 original states had “established” churches. That is, their state legislatures had picked one Christian denomination and made it the official state church and required citizens to support it with their taxes. Under the Constitution, while Congress was forbidden to establish a church, the States were – and are – completely free to do so.
In fact, all authority over religious expression – every last bit – was delegated by We the People to the states. This means, for example, that states can constitutionally prohibit the building of mosques and Oklahoma can prohibit this weekend’s satanic mass if it wishes to do so.
The second thing Congress, and by extension, the entire federal government, can do to violate the First Amendment is “prohibiting the free exercise” of the Christian religion. This Congress, as well as the executive branch and the judicial branch, is specifically forbidden to do.
Thus any law or court ruling that impinges on free religious expression is by definition flatly unconstitutional. No executive order can restrict the free expression of Christianity in any way, and no federal judge has any constitutional authority to issue a ruling that prohibits Christian prayer, Bible reading in schools, crosses or Ten Commandments monuments on public land or employers from taking Christian principle into account in personnel decisions. All those issues are for the states to decide.
The First Amendment was designed by the Founders to keep the intrusive and heavy hand of the central government from interfering in any way with freedom of Christian expression. It has been turned upside down by tyrannical and intrusive judges and is now used as a sledgehammer to pulverize into little tiny shards the very religious liberty it was designed to protect.
On Constitution Day, it’s time to get back to the Constitution the Founders gave us, not the one mangled out of recognition by black-robed tyrants. Let’s trade the religious oppression of the courts for the religious liberty of the Founders. There’s no better day to start.
(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio.)
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