Monday, February 15, 2010

The First Amendment

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned that European history might repeat itself in the new world. They wanted to avoid the continual wars motivated by religious hatred that had decimated many countries within Europe. They decided that a church/state separation was their best assurance that the U.S. would remain relatively free of inter-religious strife. Many commentators feel that over two centuries of relative religious peace in the U.S. have shown that they were right.

In 1789, the first of ten amendments were written to the Federal Constitution; they have since been known as theBill of Rights. The First Amendment reads:

"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 ratified by the States in 1791.

The first phrase in the First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." is called the establishment clause.

The courts have the responsibility to interpret the U.S. Constitution in specific instances. In their ruling in 1947 of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled:

"The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. 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'."

Three tests have been derived from various court decisions to decide the constitutionality of laws that have a religious component:

bulletThe Lemon test: This was defined in a Supreme Court ruling in 1971. To be constitutional, a law must:
bullethave a secular purpose, and
bulletbe neutral towards religion - neither hindering nor advancing it, and
bulletnot result in excessive entanglements between the government and religion.
bulletThe Endorsement Test: Justice O'Connor created this criterion: a law is unconstitutional if it favors one religion over another in a way that makes some people feel like outsiders and others feel like insiders.
bulletThe Coercion Test: Justice Kennedy proposed this criteria: a law is constitutional even if it recognizes or accommodates a religion, as long as its demonstration of support does not appear to coerce individuals to support or participate in a religion.

A simple set of criteria is that the government (and by extension public schools) may not:

bulletpromote one religion or faith group over any other
bulletpromote a religiously based life over a secularly based life
bulletpromote a secularly based life over a religiously based life.

The following phrase "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise thereof... is called the free exercise clause; it guarantees freedom of religion. This passage does not promise absolute freedom of religion. For example, courts have found that:

bulletParents cannot deny their children badly needed medical attention and rely solely on prayer.
bulletThe Amish can be compelled to wear slow vehicle reflectors on the backs of their buggies
bulletA congregation cannot generate annoyingly excessive noise during a service.

The limits of this clause are continually being tested in the courts on a case-by-case basis.

In 1988, 200 Americans of many religious backgrounds signed the Williamsburg Charter reaffirming their belief in the importance of the First Amendment.

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which gave special religious privileges to individuals and groups and limited the application of laws that intruded on personal or corporate religion. It was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1997-JUN. As the former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said: "'No law' [regarding the establishment of religion] means 'NO LAW.'" The wall of separation was again restored.

In 1995, President Clinton delivered a speech on religious freedom which described the benefits derived from that amendment.

Today, only the states of Texas and one of the Carolinas have constitutions requiring a religious test for holders of public office. And although these laws are still on the books, they have been nullified by Federal legislation.

Many, perhaps most, countries around the world do not have a wall of separation between church and state. The result is often enormous abuses, largely directed against their own citizens who follow minority religions. Here is a small sampling of such abuses.


Anonymous said...

You have to express more your opinion to attract more readers, because just a video or plain text without any personal approach is not that valuable. But it is just form my point of view

Nicole Shelby said...

Straight up and essential...and yet, continually under attack...