The First Amendment: 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 amendment is arguably the most important one in the Constitution, as it encompasses six essential rights. It covers everything from religious matters to what we can say to how we can pursue grievances against the government.
The “establishment clause” means that the government cannot make one religion the mandatory religion of the country. This concept was based on the historical abuses of one religion or sect being favored by the ruling class. If you were not part of this preferred group, you were discriminated against.
Prior to the Revolution, some states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which had been founded on religious ideals, had established churches. In those states, citizens were required to attend the favored church, and its doctrine and view of the world was taught in their schools.
After the Revolution, the practice of established churches quickly ended.
All states moved to create a barrier of sorts between the various churches and the government. Thomas Jefferson contemplated “a wall of separation between Church and State”.
No longer could the government tell Americans which church to attend or how to worship.
The “free exercise clause” means that Americans can practice their religion as they choose, and their faith demands, or to follow no religion at all. The Founders such as Fisher Ames and Samuel Livermore did not want the government to “infringe on the rights of conscience” of the people. As James Madison, the lead writer of the Bill of Rights, stated, “there is no shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion”.
Madison was not as concerned about religion having too much influence on the government as he was about government having too much impact on religion.
In the years since this amendment was adopted, Madison’s fears have come to fruition. The government, as it has grown, has keep up a steady assault on the “free exercise clause”.
The latest salvo was the court battle decided in 2020 over contraceptive coverage requirements in the Little Sisters of the Poor health insurance policy.
The Sisters claimed that providing birth control measures to their employees violated their religious beliefs.
The government claimed they had a compelling interest in enforcing their mandate and that the religious freedoms of the nuns was secondary to this interest. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sisters.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does it matter to us today that Congress cannot make a “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ”? What can be more fundamental to our pursuit of happiness than the ability to freely practice what we believe in and not be forced to violate our conscience?
Regardless of how you feel about this issue or even religion at all, we should all be wary of the government’s encroachment on any rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. Today, it is an attack on the Little Sisters of the Poor; tomorrow it could be your beliefs the government targets. We should be thankful to our Founders for their foresight.
SUGGESTED READING Paul Skousen’s book, “How to Read the Constitution” is a well written book on both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Published in 2017, it clearly explains why our Founders created these documents.
PLACES TO VISIT If you ever have the chance, you should try to attend a church service in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. I did so on an Easter Sunday many years ago and will never forget the experience. Completed in 1990, it is built in the classic gothic style and is the sixth largest Cathedral in the world. It is arguably the most impressive structure in our nation’s capital.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point alumnus and a Ford Plantation resident. You can reach him at email@example.com. And, read his blog at americanacorner.com.