Short history of the First Amendment
BY KARL SNIDERMAN
Friday, October 12, 2012
10/12/12 at 3:22 AM
A short history of the First Amendment:
Religion in the Colonies, 1620-1680. Many of the British colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the 17th century by men and women who refused to compromise their passionately held religious convictions. The great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct.
They were motivated by religious principles and purposes, seeking a home and a refuge from religious persecution. They came for religious freedom, for themselves. They believed that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens.
Majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward co-religionists.
Puritans expelled dissenters from their colonies. Those who defied the Puritans by persistently returning to their jurisdictions risked capital punishment, a penalty imposed on four Quakers between 1659 and 1661.
The Constitution, 1789; the First Amendment, 1791. The reason the founders included the principle of separation of church and state was because they were mostly Christians, but Christians of several different flavors, and they all remembered only too well how they had been treated by other Christians or how they had treated other Christians. None of them wanted any other version of Christianity to become the preferred or "established" version.
In writing the First Amendment the framers rejected versions that would have done nothing more than bar the establishment of a state church. The final version of the amendment barred not only an establishment of religion, but even laws respecting the establishment of religion (i.e., wording that further guaranteed that the federal government could not interfere with the religious affairs of the states).
The founders' general purpose is not in serious doubt. The government would not be allowed to determine how any individual could worship God; nor could it compel an individual, through taxation or otherwise, to support a religious observance by an individual, whether it was the taxpayer's own religion or someone else's.
Modern modifications, 1868-1947. When the Constitution was created, it was intended to apply only to the federal government. However, in 1868 the 14th Amendment was passed. It says, "... nor Shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" Then in 1947 the Supreme Court decided that the "due process" clause in that amendment required that the restriction against "establishment of religion" applied to the states and to all the subsidiary governments of a state, such as counties and cities, and to their institutions.
I am making two points here. One, governments, and employees of the government when speaking in their official capacity as a government official, may not do or say or require others to do or say anything that clearly advocates or supports any particular religion.
Governments may not display Ten Commandments monuments on government property; school systems may not broadcast prayers over loud speakers in the school; teachers may not advocate for or against a particular religion in their classrooms; coaches may not deliver religious-based speeches to their teams. And, city, county and state agencies may not regularly open their sessions with prayers that demonstrate, over time, a preference for one religion.
Two, governments may not restrict the right of individuals to practice their religion when they are not acting as government employees.
In school, students may pray any time they want subject to rules about not causing a disturbance. In a lunch room, if a like-minded group of students at one table wants to say a pre-meal prayer, they may do so.
Karl Sniderman is president of the northeastern Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a board member of ACLU Oklahoma.
Karl Sniderman: None of them (the founders) wanted any other version of Christianity to become the preferred or "established" version