An excerpt from a debate from our very own Chris Dumford and a co-worker. Here is the position as presented to Chris:
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.
It's perfectly reasonable to interpret those words as an intent for the separation of church and state. There's no getting around that subsequent interpretation by the supreme court carries the weight of the highest law in the land, and congress may ratify an amendment to overturn the court's interpretation. The supreme court is very very powerful as we know and is made more powerful by the current partisan political climate of the era within which we've live. As much as we are a nation of laws and not men, we all suffer from decisions made by people with whom we don't agree.
...no ammendment to the Constitution is without some historical precident. The background to the 1st ammendment is not separation FROM religion, it is in regard to the Federal Government establishing a state church and licensing pastors. This argument was originally taken up be the Virginia Legislature in 1773 as a result of Virginia prosecuting Baptist pastors for preaching without a license. At that time, only Presbyterian and Episcopal pastors were permitted to preach due to the requirement that that they be licenced by the colony of Virginia (and other colonies). James madison took up the fight to allow New Light Preachers (I.e. Baptists) to be permitted to preach without a license, which by the way, they lost their argument. At the time, the great awakening was occurring and preachers such as George Whitefield were preaching especially in New England without a licence. Rhode Island had opened up the colony to non licensed ministers such as John Clarke and Roger Williams, both of which received charters to establish churches from the King of England and to preach without a license (I have personally seen John Clarke's charter). The argument was in regard to anarchy reigning among the people if preachers were permitted to preach without state control. During the Constitutional convention, the anti-Federalists were arguing that a state religion controlled by the Federal Government was not in keeping with a free people (a position held by Jefferson and Madison). The Federalists saw that religion should be controlled by Government. In the end, an agreement was reached following ratification of the Constitution in order to bring the anti-federalists on board, the first ten ammendments would be introduced and ratified to control the power of the Federal Government. Notice that the concept of the divine right of Kings was the established thought at the time. This belief was based on the premise that God had divinely ordained Kings and as such, they stood in the stead of the people in regard to their relationship to God. In other words, it was the belief that Kings could determine how people would be saved and that Kings could indeed determine doctrine and faith. The argument of Jefferson and Madison to the Virginia Legislature prior to the American Revolution was that of the Doctrine of Preisthood of the believer, that is that every man answered to God on his own behalf, and that no man could intervene on anothers behalf. You will see this in jefferson's resonse to the Danbury Baptist Conference. He clearly states that the relationship between God and man was personal (implied, could not be legislated by the Government). The histoical context of the first ammendment clearly did not advocate a secularized government.
On October 7, 1801, a letter was delivered by the Danbury Baptist Church to Jefferson as a result of rumors that Jefferson's administration intended on establishing Presbyterianism as the official state religion (similar to England and Episcopalianism). Here is the Letter which clearly indicates that their understanding at the time was that religion could indeed coexist and partner with government, including the state governments. Notice that they refer to the ancient charter (Magna Carta) and that they recocognize that the understanding is currently that religion can and in at least some cases still was the object of legislation. The reference to destroying the laws of the state was in regard to the different states laws establishing churches and licensing of pastors. here is the letter:
Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your Election to office; we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoyd in our collective capacity, since your Inauguration, to express our great satisfaction, in your appointment to the chief Majestracy in the United States; And though our mode of expression may be less courtly and pompious than what many others clothe their addresses with, we beg you, Sir to believe, that none are more sincere.
Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty — That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals — That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor: But Sir our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted on the Basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, and such still are; that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degradingacknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretense of government & Religion should reproach their fellow men — should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.
Sir, we are sensible that the President of the United States, is not the national legislator, and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial affect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine and prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and good will shining forth in a course of more than thirty years we have reason to believe that America's God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence & the voice of the people have cald you to sustain and support you in your Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth & importance on the poverty and subjection of the people.
And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.
Signed in behalf of the Association.
The response by Jefferson which included the phrase separation of church and state was directly in context to the establishment of a state church, not in separting Federal Government from religion. Here is his response (remember it is in context to the matter at hand, no more or no less):
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Historically, the Supreme Court has upheld the Federal Government's advocating religion as a whole. State motto's refer to God (i.e. state of Ohio), state monumnets have references to God, The motto of the United States is "In God we Trust". Historically, the idea of purging God out of the public forum would have been reprehensible to our fore fathers. It was not until 1963 when the Supreme Court removed public prayer from schools that they reversed almost 200 years of precedent.
It is my opinion, that the reason we are in this debate today is that those who are attempting to redefine the intent of our forefathers in establishing the first ammendment, is because there is no teaching today on theology and the influence of theology on our forefather's thinking. Instead, we see secular writers, legislators and judges trying to rule on precedents that they do not understand because they are bowing to the current culture of the populace at large. Thus, we now have judical anarchy. Judges have divorced themselves from the law, especially the intent of the law and nor rule however they want. As a result, the Supreme court no longer interprets law, they make law!
Lastly, when Laws are made or interpreted that either openly violate the Constitution or redefine the intent of the Constitution, we no longer have a body of laws. This is where we are today!
Notice the language of the 1st Ammendment.
1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
According to your argument, this can be interpreted as separation of church and state. Thus the "State" is duty bound to remove all expression of religous nature from the public forum and any state sponsored organization or property is not permitted to have any religious expression. Here is why your understanding does not hold water (nor in my opinion does that of the Supreme Court):
The 1st ammendment goes on to say: "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."
2. Notice that the rest of the praseology of the 1st ammendment is a continuation of the initial phrase which you have undelined. If the underlined phrase is intended to separate the State from religion, then it applies to the entire 1st ammendment, not just the portion which you are inclined to underline. Thus, if the intent of the writers of the Constitution is to be interpreted as separation from religion, then also it frees Congress to spearate themselves from freedom of the press, freedom of speech and allows them to react adversely to free assembly. In essence, Conrgress should purge all such actions from the public forum since we cannot apply one set of standards to one portion of a sentence, and not to all of it. Thus, the current Supreme Court ruling of 1963, should have been argued as an inrepretation against the entire 1st Ammendment, not just a portion of it!
I think that sums it up folks. Unless we understand the Constitution and the historical precedents behind it, how do we ever determine how and why we need to change it or interpret it differently? As Chris points out, pop-culture has infected our view of the Constitution. But, pop-culture is ever changing - would you want your laws and your government based on a culture that changes over and over? If the answer is "yes", then honestly what's the point of law? The Constitution is rock-solid and actually works...if you dare to follow it that is.