What the First Amendment Really Says about Religion

By , via Godfather Politics, May 19, 2012

Many people incorrectly maintain that the First Amendment was designed to remove any and all religious precepts and considerations from civil affairs. An example of this misinterpretation can be found in the Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court:

The two men most responsible for its inclusion in the Bill of Rights constructed the clause absolutely. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison thought that the prohibition of establishment meant that a presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving Day was just as improper as a tax exemption for churches.[1]

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

James Madison

The historical facts dispute this interpretation of the First Amendment. James Madison issued at least four Thanksgiving Day proclamations. Note the language used by Madison in his 1814 proclamation: “public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God . . . their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance and amendment.”[2]

If the Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court has accurately captured the meaning of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, then Madison “violated both his oath of office and the very instruments of government that he helped write and labored to have ratified.”[3] In the same way, if Jefferson “construed the establishment clause absolutely, he also violated his oath of office, his principles, and the Constitution when, in 1802, he signed into federal law tax exemption for the churches in Alexandria County Virginia.”[4]

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...

Thomas Jefferson

Of course, neither Madison nor Jefferson violated the First Amendment by these official State acts. It is the modern day secularist interpreter of Madison and Jefferson who have misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied the First Amendment. This misreading of the First Amendment has come about through “the change in the intellectual climate of the universities, and consequently in the media and the courts. It is these opinion-making centers that have influenced common thinking about law, morality, and religion. These centers have thrown the credibility of religious witness into doubt.”[5]

Too many debates over the meaning and implementation of the First Amendment are confused by a failure to cite it accurately:

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.

An accurate interpretation of the amendment must refer to the following points:

  • There is no mention of the words Church, State, or separation in the First Amendment or in the body of the Constitution.
  • Included in the amendment are additional items which relate to the free exercise of religion. Usually these constitutional protections are narrowly applied so they are not a part of the freedom of religion provision: the right to talk about religion (freedom of speech), the right to publish religious works (freedom of the press), the right of people to worship publicly, either individually or in groups (freedom of assembly), and the right to petition the government when it goes beyond its delegated constitutional authority in these areas (the right of political involvement).
  • The prohibition is addressed to Congress. Individual states and governmental institutions (e.g., public schools, capitol building steps, national parks, etc.) are not included in the amendment’s prohibition. As clear as this is, some try to rewrite the First Amendment in order to fit their misconceptions about its meaning and implementation. For example, “The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the direct descendant of Jefferson’s Virginia resolution, and its words are quite clear. Congress, and by extension the states, ‘shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’”[6] If the constitutional framers wanted to include the phrase “and by extension the states,” they would have done so. If they had, the states would never have ratified the Constitution.
  • There is no mention of a freedom from religion. The First Amendment offers no support of a position that would outlaw religion just because it exists or offends those of a different religion or those who have no religion at all (agnostics or atheists).


  1. Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to the United States Supreme Court (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1979), 461. Quoted in Robert L. Cord, “Church-State Separation and the Public Schools: A Re-evaluation,” Educational Leadership (May 1987), 28. []
  2. The four proclamations in their entirely are published in Robert L. Cord, Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1982] 1988), 257–260. []
  3. Cord, “Church-State Separation and the Public Schools,” 26. []
  4. 2 Statutes at Large 194, Seventh Congress, Sess. 1, Chap. 52. Quoted in Cord, “Church-State Separation and the Public Schools, 28. []
  5. Jude P. Dougherty, “Separating Church and State,” The World & I (December 1987), 683. []
  6. Editorial Page, Atlanta Constitution (November 15, 1994), A18. []

5 Responses to “What the First Amendment Really Says about Religion”

  1. Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, …. blah, blah, blah… [Edited by SuperSparky]

    • I did a Google search for your little epistle. Oddly enough, it turned up (as of Sunday May 19, 2012) 139 results of you posting the identical crap on different blogs’ comment sections. The same length, word for word. It seems like someone knows their copy and paste. The one thing I despise is someone spamming the blogs with propaganda. Especially propaganda I seriously doubt you wrote yourself. So, if anyone wants to read this guy’s very long “comment”, then click on this link to Google to show all of the results:

      Doug’s propaganda

      • I wrote the text you deleted in response to an earlier post on another site and have since found it pertinent and useful to other posts on other websites. What’s the matter with repeating it, rather than trying to say the same thing with different words?

        Some observe and even gripe, as you have, that the text has been posted elsewhere–and then usually engage in discussion about the points raised. A few, like you, use their gripe as an excuse to avoid any further discussion.


          Yo dufus, this is MY blog, and I expect the readers to READ and comment on the articles based upon what I post. I don’t pay for MY blog to be able to let you post your own articles to it to get people to comment on them.

          This is what the other blog owners are “griping about.” You see, you obviously don’t want to discuss the article, otherwise your comments would be custom geared to the article, not some pad copy and pasted B.S. You just want people to talk about your crap. Get your own blog and post your own articles and be happy for the comments you receive based upon YOUR articles, and their specific content.

          I delete all spam regardless if it is about “male enhancement” or “read my article instead” stuff. It is simply “spam.” Genuine comments, on the other hand, pro or con, remain.

  2. “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights. The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground.

    “Although it provides that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide the manner by which that freedom can be preserved, nor for the punishment of Government officers who refuse to protect the people in their religious rights. … Its sentiments are good, but it provides no means of enforcing them. It had but this one fault. Under its provision, a man or a people who are able to protect themselves can get along well enough; but those who have the misfortune to be weak or unpopular are left to the merciless rage of popular fury.”

    – Joseph Smith Jr., October 5, 1843, Founder and first President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. U.S. Presidential Candidate 1844. Brutally murdered by a mob June 1844.

    And people wonder why the religious are fighting so hard to preserve their freedoms. There are real historical reasons for it.

Come on, you know you want to say something.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: