Ok, now that I have broken it down this amendment piece by piece, lets look at some of the issues it presents as a whole. For me this is important because as a pastor I use these rights in this country fairly regularly. I mean every Sunday it is the right to practice my religion without government interference, freedom of speech and freedom to assemble peacefully. I personally feel church is supposed to be a place of freedom so I am glad to live in a country that echoes this. The thing about these rights of the first amendment is that you cannot violate one for the sake of the others. It does not make sense if you think you can indeed do this. There is little point in saying a person has for instance the right to free speech but to maintain that right you have to violate others rights to practice their religion freely. The point is all of these rights must be maintained equally or the whole amendment does not make any sense.
One for instance that happened to me recently was the whole issue of a group called “Meet You at the Pole”. This is a group of Christian kids that meets at the flag pole to pray and speak about their faith at the flagpole of the school. On public land the constitutions first amendment definitely applies. The group meets peacefully (assembly), the speak freely (free speech) and prays (religious freedom). The thing people gripe about is that is this the state establishing a religion? The answer is no because no one is forced to attend and access is also granted to other religious groups should they ask to utilize it. The fact is if you shut this down you would be violating the rights of people to meet peacefully, speak freely and exercise their religion as they see fit for the sake of not establishing a religion. That’s violating three rights to maintain one and I am not sure you have even violated the one.
The reason I say this is that I hear a lot about the separation of church and state and to be honest, I don’t see that here in the first amendment except in a limited form in that the state can’t establish a state religion. The state also cannot interfere with a person’s right to practice their religion as they see fit as long as it does not violate the rights of others. The fact is those who want religion in school choke on the first part of the amendment because it would be a violation but people who want religion out choke on the second part because a student is still allowed to exercise their religion freely including with others as part of free assembly. A balance must be maintained in some way to maintain both.
I use this illustration to point out that you have to maintain all of these right and not violate a single one to maintain the others. If you propose something to uphold a person’s right to free speech on campus but to do so other people lose their right to assembly then your proposal should be rejected. It really forces us to find the line of balance and solutions so everyone’s rights are not only equally maintained but no one is shut out to maintain the rights of others.
There is a simple philosophy to use to maintain this and that is to look at the first amendment as the right to be who you are and have a voice. The state cannot stop you from being yourself but at the same time you have to respect this in others. You also have the right to assemble with others of like mind and ask the government to solve your problem if they violate your rights. This is about all of us having the freedom to act with our ideas and beliefs without government interference. Next: The Second Amendment