Do we read — or read into — the First Amendment?

I believe strongly that the First Amendment to our US Constitution is fundamental to our American sense of the role of government in our nation. More specifically, it sets important limits on the government. It is sad to see it so badly abused in our day.

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.

Point One: The Amendment speaks of limitation on Congress, though in our day we have expanded that so drastically that local school principals seem to think the Amendment requires that they tell student speakers not to mention religious faith. It is a long and twisted chain of logic from the beginning point to such a silly conclusion. It is impossible to make a rational argument that the State is “sponsoring religion” when a student expresses personal faith at a school function.

Point Two: The Amendment clearly restrains government from establishing a religion (i.e., formally recognizing one religion over others). At the time, the idea was almost certainly that Congress was being forbidden to choose one Christian denomination over another, since the idea that there would be other faiths competing with Christianity was practically unthinkable. Again, it is impossible to create a rational chain of ideas from “Congress can’t establish a denomination as the official state religion” to such nonsense as “students in public schools must not bring Bibles to school.”

Point Three: The Amendment unequivocally denies Congress the right to inhibit freedom of religion. Since the time of the Enlightenment, many people have sought to enforce the idea that “religion” is strictly personal and has no place in the public forum. That may be a popular idea but it is not a First Amendment idea. The State cannot restrict religious freedom to inner, private realms without thereby imposing on people of faith a false definition of religion and faith. The State cannot tell us to keep our faith private because that restricts our freedom of religion, a clear and stark violation of the First Amendment.

Point Three:If there is any doubt about how severely the First Amendment is limiting the right of the State to interfere with religious liberty, the Free Speech clause makes it unmistakeable. The Amendment does not say that freedom of speech is only permitted for non-believers. People of faith are not people of fewer rights and freedoms than are other citizens. A student group at a state university cannot be treated as less free than other groups simply because it is religious in some way.

(I’m happy to note that the State University system in California has reversed last year’s decision to remove from campus any group that placed a religious requirement upon its leaders. It was irrational to rule that a Christian group had to allow non-Christians to be leaders. That rule has now been rescinded and groups such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are once again permitted to function as freely as other campus groups.)

Even if we step back a bit from the First Amendment and read instead its interpretation by Thomas Jefferson, we find that the primary concern is freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. Jefferson used the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” to assure a group of pastors that the State would not and could not restrict their freedom. It is an irrational abomination that many today think religious people can have no say in public debates. There is no hint in the Constitution or Amendments that America at any level is to be free FROM religion.

If, for instance, I express my conviction that abortion ought to be limited to only the most extreme of cases, many will tell me to keep my religious views to myself. But my view of abortion is based on a concern for the human dignity of the unborn baby, not on some mystical, private religious idea. And even if my view were directly based on a passage of Scripture, why would that disqualify me from arguing my case in the public forum? Have religious people fewer rights than others in our country?

About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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