The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees the fundamental rights of Americans to have religious freedom, free speech, free press, peaceful assembly, and the right to complain to, or seek the support of the Government, without fear of reprisal.
Here is the full text of our First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “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.”
This was the final version of the First Amendment that was agreed upon after much discussion and revision.
Our country’s founders were well aware of the religious persecution that was taking place in Europe and elsewhere in the world, and they were determined to create a nation where all people had the freedom to practice their own religions.
Religious Freedom was so important to the founders, that it was the very first right given in our Bill of Rights. The two guidelines addressing religious liberty are known as the Establishment Clause (government may not establish a religion) and the Free Exercise Clause (government may not inhibit religious beliefs and practices).
The wording of the First Amendment was always intended to keep religion and government separate. Some years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Thomas Jefferson clarified the meaning of the First Amendment, saying, “I contemplate with sovereign 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 & State.” This is from Thomas Jefferson’s famous Letter to the Danbury Baptists, written in 1802, when they asked him to ensure that their religious freedom was safe. To this day, many Baptists cherish their religious liberty as an intrinsic part of their theology, and Jefferson’s letter has become the definitive explanation of the First Amendment.
Jefferson’s metaphor, of a wall of separation, has been cited repeatedly by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Court wrote that Jefferson’s comments “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.” In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Hugo Black wrote: “In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”
Let’s put the language of the First Amendment into perspective. Here is a little history lesson. The Founders spent quite a bit of time agreeing upon the First Amendment language that we are all familiar with today.
Let’s start with the original wording: “James Madison’s original proposal for a bill of rights provision concerning religion read: ”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, or on any pretence, infringed.” The language was altered in the House to read: ”Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.” In the Senate, the section adopted read: ”Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, . . .” It was in the conference committee of the two bodies, chaired by Madison, that the present language was written with its somewhat more indefinite ”respecting” phraseology.”
Despite this history, there are many people who claim that “there is no separation of church and state in the Constitution.” Their opinion is based on a literal reading of the text. But that’s not an accurate way to approach the issue.
Other phrases that do not appear in the Constitution, but are rights we take for granted, are things such as “no taxation without representation,” “the right to vote,” “innocent until proven guilty,” and the right to trial by a “jury of your peers.” Although these specific phrases are not in the Constitution, we believe these are fundamental Constitutional rights, based on the court decisions that came after the Constitution, and based on the writings of the Founders. As I mentioned previously, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Constitution, specifically stated in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists that the First Amendment wording created a “wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson sat down and wrote the definition of the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court has upheld it, repeatedly, over time. There really shouldn’t be an argument about the First Amendment’s intent.
Janice Rael, President, Delaware Valley Americans United for Separation of Church and State