Freedom of Religion, Speech, and the Press
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.
The First Amendment: Religious Freedom
The first amendment was written to prevent the national government from establishing a national church. During the colonial days each colony had its own official religion. That means each colony recognized a particular Christian denomination as the official state religion supported by tax-payer dollars.
During those early days each denomination feared that one particular denomination would be crowned the national religion. For instance, the Quakers didn’t want the Puritans running the nation, and certainly the Puritans didn’t want the Quakers running things either. This fear and mistrust led to liberty.
This brings us to the Bill of Rights. As a result of that mistrust and fear the Founders said that “...Congress shall make no law respecting an establishing of religion...”. That means that the national government can’t make a law setting up a particular denomination as an official national faith. The amendment also goes on to say that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Basically the national government is to have a hands-off policy on religion, period. The people are free to assemble and to worship as they please.
Here’s some historical background regarding freedom of assembling to worship. Back in England if people disagreed with the state-established Church they would meet in homes and study privately. Of course the powers that be put a kibosh on that activity and in some cases severely punished people for attending these meetings. The people in England couldn’t assemble to worship according to their convictions, they were required to submit to the state-established Church.
The First Amendment was the first step toward total religious freedom everywhere. The Constitution didn’t forbid the states from establishing religion since they already had established religions. However, this freedom atmosphere caught on in the states as well. For instance, listen to what Patrick Henry said in the Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 12, 1776:
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed ONLY BY REASON AND CONVICTION, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”
What great words! George Washington said that Government is force. That’s exactly what it is. Henry, recognizing this, said in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that religion must be a matter of conscience and conviction, not government force.
Just a few years later, Virginia disestablished the Anglican Church. Not long after that Thomas Jefferson created a bill for total religious freedom. Many didn’t like it. But the freedom was realized in 1786 when James Madison saw to it that the bill was passed. Thomas Jefferson put this event among the top three accomplishments of his life. Jefferson helped oust both political and religious tyrants! Not bad for a life’s work.
The Virginia Religious Statute reads this way:
“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either…that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others...”
He went on to say that truth doesn’t need the power of government behind it. He said that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, and truth has nothing to fear from conflict. The power of government force will only hinder free debate and actually perpetuate the very errors those in favor of Government established religion pretend to prevent.
The Founders knew that a state church, one financed by tax dollars, would become corrupt because it doesn’t answer to the people. As a result, it would become an arm of the state and give religious significance to every act of government, even if the acts are unjust. This has been the nature of religion from the days of Ancient Sumer and Egypt to this day.
Freedom of religion means freedom to voice your opinions without fear of punishment. The first amendment was intended to give people a free voice in speaking up against a power hungry state. In Colonial America many ministers gave Election Sermons which would point out moral issues facing the day. If the state controlled those ministers, there would be no voice against state corruption. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
The results of the first Amendment are wonderful. We are free to use our God given brains to learn and come to our convictions without fear of punishment. This freedom is only hated by religious tyrants. Let’s breathe the fresh air of freedom together!