In my last legalese column, I talked about the First Amendment, specifically freedom of speech. I’d like to talk a bit more about the First Amendment, this time focusing a bit more on the Free Exercise of Religion section. To reiterate, here is the exact language of the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise; or restricting freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble peacefully and seek redress from the government for their grievances.
What exactly does it mean that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”?
Luckily for us, my opinion is irrelevant. The United States Supreme Court has already weighed quite heavily on this issue. Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing TP Et Al, 330 US 1 (1947) explains it quite well and explains why it was put in the Constitution in the first place. Here is a long but worth reading quote: “An exercise of that authority [in the new world] was accompanied by a repetition of many practices and persecutions of the old world. Catholics found themselves hunted and proscribed because of their faith; Quakers who followed their conscience went to jail; The Baptists were particularly distasteful to some mainstream Protestant sects; men and women of various faiths who were in the minority in a particular locality were persecuted because they steadfastly persisted in worshiping God only according to their own conscience. And all of these dissenters were forced to pay tithes and taxes to support government-sponsored churches whose ministers preached inflammatory sermons intended to strengthen and solidify the established faith by generating searing hatred against dissenters.
These practices became so commonplace that they shocked freedom-loving settlers into a sense of horror. The imposition of taxes to pay the salaries of ministers and to build and maintain churches and ecclesiastical property aroused their indignation. It is these sentiments that found expression in the First Amendment. No locality or group throughout the colonies can justly be fully credited with having aroused the sentiment which resulted in the adoption of the provisions of the Bill of Rights encompassing religious liberty. But Virginia, where the established church had attained a dominant influence in political affairs and where many excesses had come to the attention of the general public, provided a great stimulus and capable leadership for the movement. People there, as elsewhere, came to believe that individual religious liberty could best be realized under a government that was stripped of all power to tax, support, or otherwise aid any or all religions, or ‘interfere with anyone’s beliefs. individual or religious group.
The movement toward this end reached its dramatic climax in Virginia in 1785-1786 when the Virginia legislature was about to renew Virginia’s tax levy for the support of the established church. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the fight against this tax. Madison wrote her great Memorial and Remonstrance Against the Law. In it, he eloquently argued that a true religion does not need the backing of law; that no person, believer or non-believer, should be taxed for supporting a religious institution of any kind; that the best interest of a society demanded that the minds of men should always be entirely free; and that cruel persecutions were the inevitable result of government-established religions. (Footnotes omitted.)
Accordingly, “the ‘establishment of a religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can establish a church. Neither can make laws that help one religion, help all religions, or favor one religion over another. Neither force nor influence a person to go or stay away from church against his will or force him to profess any belief or disbelief in any religion. No one can be punished for having maintained or professed religious beliefs or unbeliefs, for having attended church or not. No tax of any amount, great or small, may be levied to support religious activities or institutions, whatever their name, or whatever they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the federal government may, overtly or covertly, participate in the affairs of religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In Jefferson’s words, the clause against the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and state.” Reynolds v. United States, supra, 98 US at page 164, 25 L.Ed. 244.”
Think what those Supreme Court words that have been the law of the land for seventy-five years mean when and if you hear arguments for prayer in public schools or arguments for or against politicians because of their religious beliefs (or non-beliefs). .) Regardless of your personal views, how does the First Amendment affect your analysis of whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support religious schools? Should a Christian who pays taxes fund a Jewish or a Muslim school? Should a Hindu student attending a public school pray in the name of Jesus? Should an atheist or an agnostic be unqualified for a position?
What would the Supreme Court say?
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is offered for informational purposes only.