Yet, even after learning that the phrase is not part of the Constitution, many citizens nevertheless persist: “Well, even though the words aren’t there, isn’t that what the First Amendment really means? Wasn’t that the intent of those who framed that Amendment?”
The answer to that question is, “No; that was not their intent” – at least not in the way that we have come to know separation of church and state today.
What evidence proves this? The Founders’ own writings as well as the official documents surrounding the framing of the First Amendment – documents such as the Congressional Record.
The Congressional Record (required by the Constitution in Art. i, Sec. 5, ¶ 3) contains all the official words and acts that occur in congressional chambers. Those records therefore include the discussion of the ninety Founders in the first federal Congress who, from June 8 to September 25, 1789, framed the First Amendment. 2In those lengthy discussions that spanned months, the Founders repeatedly explained that they were seeking to prevent what they had experienced under Great Britain: the legal establishment by the national government of a single religious denomination in exclusion of all others (whether Catholic, Anglican, or any other). Very simply, their oft-repeated intent was that Congress could not officially establish any one denomination in America; or, in the wording proposed by James Madison, “nor shall any national religion be established.”
(Significantly, the word “religion” in the Founders’ First Amendment discussions was often used interchangeably with the word “denomination.” For example, the original version of the First Amendment introduced in the Senate on September 3, 1789, stated, “Congress shall not make any law establishing any religious denomination.” The second version stated, “Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination.” The third version was very similar, declaring, “Con-gress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination in preference to another.” The final version passed on that day declared, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting thefree exercise thereof.” 24 Clearly, the word “religion” had been used interchangeably with “denomination” throughout their discussions, and this is why the First Amendment prohibited the national government from establishing any single “religion,” or denomination.) When the First Amendment was finally approved, it contained two separate clauses on religion, each with an independent scope of action. The first clause (called the Establishment Clause) prohibited the federal government from establishing a single national denomination; the second clause (called the Free Exercise Clause) prohibited the federal government from interfering with the people’s public religious expressions and acknowledgments. Significantly, both clauses restricted the actions of the federal government; neither restricted the actions of citizens. Very simply, the Founding Fathers did not want a single federal denomination to rule America (“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion . . .”), but they did expect basic Biblical principles and values to be present throughout public life and society (“. . . nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof ”).
Significantly, for over a century-and-a-half after the First Amendment was ratified, this was the only manner in which it was interpreted. Unfortunately, in recent decades activist courts have dramatically redefined the word “religion” in the First Amendment, giving it a definition found in no dictionary (except the Court’s own privatelywritten one). The result is that the First Amendment is now used to prohibit the very religious activities that the Founders themselves once encouraged under that same Amendment. One clear example of this is provided by Fisher Ames, the Founding Father who offered the final wording for the House version of the First Amendment. Ames, like so many other Framers, was committed to maintaining sound education in America. In his watchfulness over education, he noticed that many new children’s books, filled with character fables and moral lessons, were being introduced into the classroom. Ames did not object to the content of these new books, but he was alarmed that an unintended consequence would be that students would have less time to spend on the Bible. He therefore publicly urged:
Why then, if these [new] books for children must be retained – as they will be – should not the Bible regain the place it once held as a school book? Ames further noted that the Bible was the principal source of sound morals in America and therefore must never be separated from the classroom. Clearly, the use of the Bible in public school classrooms did not violate Fisher Ames’ view of the First Amendment – and he was one of the Framers most responsible for the wording of that Amendment. Ironically, the Amendment he helped write now prohibits the very activities he once encouraged under that same Amendment. Dr. Benjamin Rush provides another such example. Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, ratified the Constitution, and served in the presidential administrations of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson,and James Madison. He was also one of America’s leading educators, helping found five schools and universities, three of which still exist today. In fact, he was the first Founder to call for free public schools under the Constitution, for which he may properly be titled “The Father of the Public Schools under the Constitution.” In a famous 1791 educational policy paper, Rush offered numerous reasons why the Bible should never be taken out of American schools. He even warned:
In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, [if we remove the Bible from schools] I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes and take so little pains to prevent them. Rush knew that if religious teachings were excluded from education, widespread misbehavior would result, and the increase in crime would become a national problem. Yet today the First Amendmentnow prohibits what it once protected: the inclusion of religious principles in public education.