“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It seems the common belief today is that the First Amendment requires the separation of church and state. This is inaccurate. As the United States was being formed, the people believed in God, and they believed people had the right to worship God however they saw fit. They certainly did not want any entity, whether king or a national government, demanding they practice a particular religion. By the time the Constitution was written, several Christian sects had already sprung up throughout the states. That being the case, it would make sense that the people wanted assurance that the newly formed government could not enforce a national religion. Thus, what today is referred to as the Establishment Clause was introduced into the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Our government was set up so that only Congress could make laws. And the wording of the Establishment Clause was meant to assure the people that Congress could not establish a national religion. In other words, Congress cannot make a law requiring the people of the United States to participate in a particular religion. Furthermore, the Exercise Clause which states “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” was meant to assure that Congress could not forbid United States citizens from practicing their religion. Yet the Supreme Court has on numerous occasions declared certain religious practices as being unconstitutional. On what grounds? The absurd idea of separation of church and state, which the Court believes is implied by the First Amendment.
Where did that idea come from?
When the Constitution was written, Thomas Jefferson was in France. And when the Bill of Rights was introduced, he had not yet returned to the United States. Later, in 1802, he wrote a letter to members of the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut as a response to a letter he had received from them. In their letter, they had expressed concern that the wording in the First Amendment was not enough to keep Congress from making a law adverse to their religious doctrine. Jefferson’s response was meant to assure the association that their fears were unfounded. “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” A copy of the letter can be found here. Because of this letter, the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that the State, whether that be a state or its government buildings or its court or its funded schools, cannot and should not allow any religious practices within its structure. So according to the Supreme Court, even though Jefferson was not part of the Constitutional Convention and did not take part in the Bill of Rights, his letter defined the First Amendment. Interestingly, Jefferson believed that the national government had no power to make laws regarding religion. However, he did believe that the states had the authority to do so. In a letter written by Jefferson to Rev. Samuel Miller, Jefferson stated, "Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority."
The First Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights only to prevent the government from forming a national religion. Go here to review the statements made during the Congressional debates. Elbridge Gerry said the First Amendment would read better if it was stated as, “No religious doctrine shall be established by law.” James Madison suggested the First Amendment should be worded to read, “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established.” Indeed, after the First Amendment was written, Madison interpreted it to mean that Congress could not establish a national religion. George Mason also believed that no sect of Christianity should be established in preference (pg. 244) of any other. Furthermore, while speaking at the ratifying convention in North Carolina, Samuel Johnston expressed his belief that the Constitution would not allow the establishment of any one religion, and that there was no reason to fear such an event.** However, Peter Sylvester was afraid the First Amendment could be used to do away with religion altogether. Considering the many decisions by the Supreme Court, it seems Sylvester’s fears were not unmerited.
**Can be verified by accessing ELLIOT'S DEBATES from the Library of Congress, Volume 4, pg. 198, 199. (Link won't work by copying and pasting)
Next Friday: 2. Beginning of a Nation