The First Amendment and Religious Freedom – We’re Doing It Wrong

Since the mid-1960s, the Church and State debate has raged back and force, often without any resolution, but with ever-increasing, not to mention un-Constitutional limits on religious freedom.  When I first looked into this more than two decades ago, however, I discovered something extraordinary:  One side was siding with the law.  The other side(s) were siding with ideals while using (abusing) the law.

Someone recently stated the concept behind “separation of church and state” rather well, a concept that coincides with the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947):

“Unless it is an academic study of the Bible as literature, or comparative religious studies in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the religion of Christianity does not belong in the curriculum of public schools. If you want religious instruction to be part of your child’s education, you either teach it to them at home and send them to Sunday school at your church, or pay to send them to a private, parochial school which teaches that religion along with academic subjects.”

Why, then, did schools throughout the first 150 years of our nation’s history teach Christianity in public schools?  Did it really take us more than a century to “get it right?”  Or were we adhering to the spirit and intent behind our First Amendment all along, until forces in the middle of the 20th Century managed to derail it?

Answering this question requires a careful examination of three things:

1.  The First Amendment itself

2.  Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Church

3.  The historical context in which the First Amendment was drafted.

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 begins our Bill of Rights.  Thus, like the Second Amendment, it’s a right, not a privilege.  Whether in thought, belief, or oral or written expression, even to the point of criticizing our government, our Founding Fathers vehemently agreed that keeping men free required unequivocal protection of creed, word, and deed.  When anyone, especially a government, attempts to modify, coerce, or suppress creed, word, or deed, they are infringing upon our fundamental freedom from which all other freedoms stem.  This is about nothing less than the very essence of who we are as human beings.

Clearly, rights are not without limits, but the only reasonable limits involve cases where one person’s rights infringe upon the rights of another.  The most common example is that no one has a right to shout “Fire!” in a theater, as that infringes on the rights of others who are there to watch the play or movie, not to mention their safety should there be a panic exodus.

Some more topics for discussion:

Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Church

Jefferson viewed a minimal government as necessary to the healthy functioning of society, but larger government a danger to be kept in check, as larger governments are intrusive and uncontrollable parasites on a free society.