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Church and State Introduction

In a Nutshell

  • The First Amendment of the Constitution makes certain guarantees of religious freedom
  • Establishment Clause: The government cannot establish any official religion
  • Free Exercise Clause: The government cannot prohibit citizens from exercising their own personal religious beliefs
  • Much controversy has surrounded how to interpret the precise meanings of the two religious-freedom clauses

When adopted in 1791, the First Amendment prohibited Congress from establishing a national church or passing laws restricting the free exercise of religion. "Congress," the amendment says, "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." These brief clauses had little immediate impact in the new nation; in fact, as the various state governments were not restricted by the First Amendment, they continued to support favored churches and discriminate against religious dissenters, much as they had in the colonial past. By 1833, every state had eliminated its official church, yet religion continued to shape many local and state laws. But in 1940, the United States Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the states should also be restricted by the religion clauses of the First Amendment; since that time, the Court has worked to establish and apply a uniform interpretation of these clauses throughout the nation. Not everyone has agreed with the Court’s interpretation of these two short phrases. And as many of the cases involving religious rights touch on vital issues such as marriage, education, and "the right to die," recent disputes over the Court’s interpretations have often been titanic; it’s unlikely that this will change in the near future. In recent years, new political initiatives and new confrontations between science and religion have raised new challenges for the Court. In other words, the Supreme Court has not yet finished working out the full meaning of the First Amendment.

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Why Should I Care?

America has always been a land of religious liberty, a refuge for religious outcasts looking for a haven to freely practice their faith, right?

Not really. Most of the religious refugees that fled to America were looking for freedom for their particular beliefs, not for those of others. They often tried to exclude other religious groups—sometimes through laws, sometimes through violence. (The famous Massachusetts Puritan minister Cotton Mather, for example, reacted to the 1682 arrival in his colony of a ship full of "the heretics and malignants called Quakers"—a different group of English religious dissenters—by proposing to sell them all into slavery in Barbados. The Quakers wisely decided to move on to Pennsylvania.) Also, almost every colony established an official church and forced all residents, whether members of the established church or not, to support it with taxes.

Okay, but we sorted all this out with the ratification of the First Amendment, eliminating established churches and guaranteeing that everyone could worship without interference, right?

Not really. The First Amendment placed restrictions only on the federal government; state governments remained free to establish churches, collect taxes, and regulate religious practices much as they had in the past.

Okay, but the men who drafted the First Amendment were true visionaries, idealists who realized that eventually their commitment to the principle of religious freedom would take root and become a critical part of our nation’s character, right?

Again: not really. Most of the Founding Fathers, like James Madison, thought that the Bill of Rights was unnecessary and that drafting these amendments was a waste of Congress’s time.

Well, then, why was the First Amendment added to the Constitution at all? What did the religious freedom clauses really mean to the Founders? What did the First Amendment actually do? When and how did it become such a large part of our national identity? And what exactly does it mean today?

Great questions.

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