First Amendment: What does it really say about religion?

The Establishment/Religion Clause in the United States Constitution’s First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The term “separation of church and state” has become synonymous with this First Amendment Clause, however, this simplified interpretation can have drawbacks. It has become normal to put religion into the private area of our lives because of not wanting to upset this separation. However, the separation is there to serve several purposes:

  • “First, the founders invoked separationism to protect the church from the state.” (John Witte, Jr., “Facts and Fictions about the History of Separation of Church and State,” Journal of Church and State 48, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 28.)
  • “Second, the founders invoked the principle of separationism to protect the state from the church.” (Witte, “Facts and Fictions,” 30.)
  • “Third, the founders sometimes invoked the principle of separation of church and state as a means to protect the individual’s liberty of conscience from the intrusions of either church or state, or both conspiring together.” (Witte, “Facts and Fictions,” 31-32.)
  • “Fourth, the founders occasionally used the principle of separation of church and state to argue for the protection of individual states from interference by the federal government in governing local religious affairs.” (Witte, “Facts and Fictions,” 32.)
  • “Fifth, the founders invoked the principle of separation of church and state as a means to protect society and its members form unwelcome participation in and support for religion.” (Witte, “Facts and Fictions,” 33.)

These five interpretations of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment show how complex this short clause is in relation to keeping government and religion separated, yet allow the free expression of religion by citizens. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that religion is something that needs to be talked about outside of our homes in order to ensure the protection of individuals’ right to express their religion and not be discriminated because of their religion.


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