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Saturday, December 27, 2003

The Constitution and the Commandments

In declaring government religious (mainly Christian) expression unconstitutional, the courts refer to the First Amendment, and they interpret that amendment through the words of Jefferson penned to the Danbury Baptists, which declared “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Our current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, says of this interpretation, “It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of constitutional history,…the [Jefferson] ‘wall’ has proved all but useless as a guide to sound constitutional adjudication.”

It is interesting that Jefferson, considered by many to be an expert on the First Amendment, did not sign the Constitution, was not present at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and was not present when the First Amendment was debated in the first session of Congress in 1789. The principal authors of the First Amendment were Fisher Ames and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, not Thomas Jefferson.

It is also interesting to look at other writings and deeds of Jefferson, of which many today would be declared “unconstitutional” using our current courts’ frequent interpretation of the First Amendment. While Jefferson was President, Christian worship services were held in the capital, local governments were urged to make land available specifically for Christian purposes, and President Jefferson provided $300 to “assist the said Kaskaskia tribe in the erection of a church” and to provide “annually for seven years $100 towards the support of a Catholic priest.”

Fisher Ames, who, as stated above, was one of the principal authors of the First Amendment, said this in a magazine article published on September 20, 1789:
“We have a dangerous trend beginning to take place in our education. We’re starting to put more and more textbooks into our schools… We’ve become accustomed of late of putting little books into the hands of children containing fables and moral lessons… We are spending less time in the classroom on the Bible, which should be the principal text in our schools… The Bible states these great moral lessons better than any manmade book.”
Does it sounds like Mr. Ames, one of the authors of the First amendment, would be for removing prayer from school or the Ten Commandments from government buildings? Maybe our current justices should consider this article instead of Jefferson’s letter in “interpreting” the First Amendment.

However, that is really the problem: For the past five or six decades judges have been “interpreting” our Constitution instead of honoring the original words and intent of the text. Liberal judges have “interpreted” the First Amendment beyond recognition. The words are plain enough, but a bit of history makes things more obvious.

The initial draft of the First Amendment was made by James Madison on June 8, 1789. His wording was:
The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.
The House Select Committee on August 15, 1789 revised Madison’s statement to read:
No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.
A representative from New York, Peter Sylvester, objected to the revised statement, declaring:
It might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.
Madison changed the wording slightly, but Congressman Benjamin Huntington still objected saying,
The words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion.
Madison later responded to Congressman Huntington and Congressman Sylvester agreeing that he,
…believes that the people feared one sect might obtain a preeminence, or two combine and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.
The House agreed on the following, proposed by Ames on August 20, 1789:
Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.
The Senate then took up the debate with versions that read:
Congress shall not make any law infringing the rights of conscience, or establishing any religious sect or society.
Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another…

Congress shall make no law establishing one religious society in preference to others…
Both houses agreed on the wording we have today:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
Given this small bit of history, one can see that what our Founders were trying to accomplish with the initial part of the First Amendment was to prevent an “official” government denomination/religion, one that people could be required to follow, not the removal of God and His Word from our government. This becomes more obvious when one examines the summary of words and deeds of all our Founders and not just the eight words of Jefferson’s letter. I can imagine that hardly any, much less a majority, of our Founders would intend for the First Amendment to be used to remove a display of the Ten Commandments from a public courthouse. I think to conclude otherwise, one would have to rewrite our history.

Copyright 2015, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World