Friday, June 18, 2010

Religion and the Constitution by David Barton

The question of what the Founders intended as the proper relationship between religious expressions and “public” life (whether in education, law, government, or throughout society in general) is clearly documented in their numerous writings on this subject. Those records establish their intent and thus clarify their two references to religion in the Constitution.

The first reference is in Article VI, Section 3: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. The second is in the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Through the years, these two constitutional requirements have formed the basis of many judicial decisions. Historically, legal scholars have examined both phrases when seeking the intent of either; the understanding of each was made more complete through the examination of both. The goal was always to identify and establish the original context and purpose of those two religious provisos before attempting to apply them.

However, in Everson (1947) the modern Court discarded this objective. It first divorced the First Amendment from its original purpose and then reinterpreted it without regard to either historical context or previous judicial decisions. The result was that the Court abandoned the traditional constitutional meaning of “religion” as a single denomination or system of worship and instead substituted a new “modern” concept which even now remains vague and nebulous, having changed several times in recent years.

By this substitution, the Court created a new and foreign purpose for the First Amendment and completely rewrote its scope of protections and prohibitions. In attaching today’s “enlightened” perceptions to yesterday’s acts, the Court demonstrated an unscholarly, and even disquieting approach to both law and history. As explained by Founder Noah Webster, † not only misinterpretation but even serious error can result when original meanings are ignored: In the lapse of two or three centuries, changes have taken place which in particular passages obscure the sense of the original languages.

The effect of these changes is that some words are being now used in a sense different from that which they had and thus present wrong signification or false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had when introduced mistakes may be very injurious. To avoid the “injurious mistakes” which may arise from misinterpreting the First Amendment, one need simply establish the original intent of that Amendment.

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