"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
Thus begins the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Along with 9 additional amendments, ratified on December 15, 1791, they constitute what is known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment is perhaps responsible for more debate, argument and acrimony than the other 9 members of the Bill of Rights combined. Four fundamental American freedoms are expressed in the First Amendment, Religion, Speech, the Press and Assembly. Today's discussion will focus on the first of these, Freedom of (and from) Religion.
Two clauses of the First Amendment delineate ways in which government deals with religion. Constitutional scholars refer to these as the "Establishment Clause", ('...no law respecting an establishment of religion'), and the "Free Expression Clause", ('...prohibiting the free exercise thereof).
The Establishment Clause was intended to prevent the Federal Government from declaring an official religion for the United States. This was quite the "no-brainer" as escaping State Religion was the reason the first European settlers came to these shores. But, does it also prohibit government from supporting any religion, materially or otherwise?
It was Thomas Jefferson, in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, who first coined the term, "Wall of Separation", to express his views on the Establishment Clause. Jefferson was an avid believer in the principle that religion was a private matter; that government has no authority in the manner of the relationship between Man and God. It is from Jefferson, in fact, that we get the idea of "separation of church and state", an issue of immense debate, interpretation and division in America that exists to this very day.
The Supreme Court affirmed Jefferson's opinion in Everson v Board of Education. Justice Black, writing for the Court, said, "Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State.'" It is obvious that the Court wanted no entanglements between religion and government.
The Free Exercise Clause was meant to protect just that, the free exercise or non-exercise of religious beliefs. Simply put, government can't make you belong to, or attend, any church. You are freely allowed to practice and adhere to the tenets of Catholicism, any Protestant sect, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion, large or small. Neither can they prevent you from NOT attending church. You are as free to be an atheist as you are to be a fundamentalist evangelical. The Free Exercise Clause guarantees freedom OF religion as well as freedom FROM religion. But, what about the signs and symbols of a particular religion being displayed on public grounds?
The Supreme Court has vaccilated on this issue greatly over the years. They have allowed Nativity scenes in some places, and ordered them removed in others. A monument containing the 10 Commandments was allowed to remain in front of the Texas State Capitol, while framed copies of the same document were prohibited in 2 Kentucky Courthouses. Clearly, this remains an unsettled issue and one that tends to waiver with the judicial fortitude as well as the political makeup of the Court.
The "Founding Fathers" were a smart and shrewed bunch. They were smart enough to understand that certain rights and freedoms, while supremely endowed and unalienable, needed to be clearly expressed in the ultimate law of the land. They were also shrewed enough to realize that societal attitudes were likely to change over time. Thus, the Constitution remains a dynamic document subject to interpretation by a Supreme Court and open to amending by the people. Their intelligence allows us to feel comfortable living in a free society. Their shrewdness creates a certain level of discomfort as we remain subject to the vagueries of an ever-changing Court.
From this writer's perspective, it is clear that governments have no place in Church. It is equally obvious that religion has no place in the halls of government. So long as Congress is allowed to begin each day with a Christian prayer; so long as "In God We Trust" appears on every cent of our money; and so long as our Supreme Court refuses to strike down every law which attempts to commingle religion and government, there will be no resolution to this debate.
In the words of Justice Black, concluding his opinion in the Everson case, "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable." I couldn't agree more.
(This is the first in what will become a series of essays on the Constitution of the United States, its' Articles, Amendments, and the decisions affecting them.)