The Bill of Rights has always been a sore topic in American politics. My own personal feelings about them are that they are one of the better declarations of human rights that there are in the world. However, I also recognize that in reality ‘rights’ are something that must be upheld by something. The debate as to what this something might be is always out there and what is proposed is everything from God to nature. This series is something I have been debating for a long time. I started something similar once on an old blog but it got swallowed up with other things. The idea was to look at the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution in detail and give my opinion on how they should be applied. I will start that today with the first amendment but it might take a few weeks to just get through this one. The first amendment has a lot in it.
Before I begin I must state that my opinion about a right is based on my philosophy that a right is something that tells the government what it can not do to the individual. A right prohibits the government from acting against an individual’s freedoms. It is never about giving the government permission to do something, it is about prohibiting government from acting in certain ways. That said let us look at the first amendment on religion.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…
Now you can see exactly what I was talking about right away with the phrase “Congress shall make no law”. The idea is presented right up front that the design if this amendment is to prevent the government from make laws. It is not about telling Congress what they can do, but what they can’t do.
The second phrase “respecting the establishment of religion” was deliberately aimed against the idea of creating a state religion but in its broader context it means the government cannot mandate any religious creed or practice. I have to freely admit that the opponents of prayer in school might have a point if there is a mandate for a teacher to lead a certain prayer from a certain creed. Even a moment of silence has religious implications to some although some have come to terms with the idea that it is just a good pause to think for atheists. The point is that you can’t force a creed or religious practice down someone’s throat. I hardily agree even as a theist and Christian. The problem though is that then certain groups think they are not religious in their outlook and so then think this gives them right to teach without the other ideas being present. However it is the second part that undermines this idea
The third phrase is “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof“. This means government cannot stop people from believing what they want or exercising those beliefs freely. This gets to be a double-edged sword for some that they don’t like. As an example, I would say that a public school that has the policy of a school led prayer as not allowed might be upholding the first amendment, if their policy extends to the individual student having a prayer at their desk or sharing what they believe in class is a violation of the third phrase. You cannot make a rule that prohibits the free exercise of a person’s individual religious beliefs in a public place. Private industries are a different matter but in the area of public schools you cannot stop the individual from freely exercising their religion. If a student wants to read their Bible, if they want to pray before a test or if they are asked a question and give an answer based on their faith, you can’t stop them with the law. That is but one example but there are many on which this could be applied. The idea is that the government cannot stop you from freely exercising your religious belief.
The is part of the first amendment is designed to prevent the state from establishing a state church and forcing a certain religious persuasion but it also prohibits the state from stopping people who are freely exercising their beliefs in a public setting. Now, there is far more to go through in this amendment when it comes the free exchange of ideas so I will leave that discussion till later. The real difficulty is that some issues are not as black and white. For instance should religious organizations be allowed to put up displays on public property? Given this part of the first amendment, the public property should either allow anyone to put their religious display up regardless of religion or belief; or they should not allow anyone to put up a religious display. I think the second is easier to enforce and to be honest probably more to the spirit of this part of the first amendment. The idea is a wall that works both ways.
There is much more that I could say at this point but I think some of the subjects will have to wait until the whole amendment is covered. See you next week.
Next: Speech and Press