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Week of: July1, 2001

Stiflling the Free Exercise of Religion

by F.R. Duplantier

Our United States Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended to protect our right to practice our religious faith freely; and yet, the Supreme Court has often invoked this amendment to justify decisions restricting our freedom of religion. The nation's highest Court has prohibited the teaching of religion in public schools, even when students have parents' consent and a choice of religious denominations. It has also outlawed the recitation of prayers and the reading of the Bible in public schools. On the other hand, the Court has done nothing to curtail the promotion of secular humanism in the public schools, notwithstanding the First Amendment's prohibition against "an establishment of religion" and the Court's own ruling that secular humanism itself is a religion.

It was to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" that our Founding Fathers adopted the United States Constitution in 1787. The Bill of Rights was added in 1791. These first ten Amendments to the Constitution list many -- but not all -- of our "unalienable rights" and prohibit the federal government from infringing upon them.

The First Amendment states, "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 is quite clear from the historical record that our Founding Fathers intended to encourage religion, not discourage it, and that they simply wanted to ensure that the power of the federal government would never be used to favor one denomination over another. The Northwest Ordinance, approved by Congress in the same year as the Constitution, specifically calls for the encouragement of "schools and the means of education" in order to promote "religion, morality, and knowledge," which are said to be necessary to "government and the happiness of mankind." In his Farewell Address, the Father of our Country and our first President, George Washington, declared "religion and morality" to be "indispensable supports" leading to "political prosperity."

The First Amendment does not prohibit the encouragement of religious belief and morality. It does prohibit an establishment of religion -- that is, the creation of an official state church -- but the prohibition applies solely to the federal government. The Ninth Amendment stipulates that rights enumerated in the Constitution and the first eight Amendments do not preclude the existence of other rights belonging to the people. The Tenth Amendment stipulates that the States and the people retain all powers not expressly granted to the federal government. In other words, any one of our 50 states could, with the approval of its citizens, establish an official church. Educated Americans know that some of the original states did, in fact, have established religions when they ratified the Constitution. Clearly then, the First Amendment was never intended to be used as a foil against faith.


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