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.

Amendment I:

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.

In the American political tradition, we often refer to the freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly as our “first freedoms”; first not only because they are protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution but also because the freedom to speak, write, worship, and assemble peacefully is central to any conception of liberty worthy of the name. As Justice Benjamin Cardozo noted in an important Supreme Court case in 1937, the “freedom of thought and speech” is the “matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.”

But simply declaring, as the First Amendment does, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” or “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of people peaceably to assemble” does not immediately settle our current debates about the shape this freedom should take in political life. For the government will, as it always has, make some speech—libel, fraud, perjury, etc.—subject to criminal sanctions. The question we are constantly wrestling with is where the line between protected an unprotected speech is to be drawn. Just last week, for example, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in United States v. Alvarez, a case challenging a congressional act that made it a crime to claim falsely to have won a military honor.

Xavier Alvarez, an elected member of a local government board in eastern Los Angeles County, told a group of people in 2007 that he was a retired marine of 25 years and that he had been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic military service. Although he and his lawyers admit there was no truth to these claims, Alvarez nonetheless insists he had a constitutional right to make them. Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the outcome will depend on answers to some weighty questions– What is the purpose of the freedom of speech? Why do we have it? And are some types of speech beyond the pale of what is legitimately protected by the Constitution? The same may be said about the limits of religion and assembly, for we are always debating these anew. Is the Obama Administration’s mandate that religious organizations cover contraception, abortafacient drugs, and sterilization in their health insurance policies an affront to religious liberty? Should religious employers be subject to federal anti-discrimination laws? Is there a right to picket at the funerals of military servicemen? Can people simply campout in public spaces without appropriate permits?

To begin to answer these questions, it seems we must think through and understand our entire scheme of constitutional government. In a regime that seeks to protect the rights of individuals and create space for the vital institutions of civil society, we must balance the legitimate need for law and order against principled limits on government power. As the Founders were well aware, a legislature, made of ambitious and imperfect men, will, if left unchecked, draw “all power into its impetuous vortex.” The freedoms in the First Amendment stand as a bulwark against this type of concentration of power, first by protecting the liberty of conscience and the rights of religious and civic organizations and, second, by reminding successive generations about the rights that are indispensable to a free society. The power and force of the First Amendment is muted, however, if citizens are not educated and engaged. As the principal author of the First Amendment, James Madison, acknowledged, the “only guardian of true liberty” in a republican regime is, at the end of the day, the widespread “advancement and diffusion of knowledge.”

Justin Dyer, Ph.D. teaches political science at the University of Missouri, and he is the author of Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (Cambridge University Press).

Friday, March 2, 2012 

Essay #10 


Guest Essayist: William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation

It is a commonplace to trace the origins of the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances to Magna Carta in 1215. There, Barons displeased with King John’s pretension to absolute, forced him to agree to specific limitations on his authority in deference to that of the nobility. Chapter 61 of the Great Charter ( provides:

Since, moveover, for God and the amendment of our kingdom and for the better allaying of the quarrel that has arisen between us and our barons, we have granted all these concessions, desirous that they should enjoy them in complete and firm endurance forever, we give and grant to them the underwritten security, namely, that the barons choose five and twenty barons of the kingdom, whomsoever they will, who shall be bound with all their might, to observe and hold, and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties we have granted and confirmed to them by this our present Charter, so that if we, or our justiciar, or our bailiffs or any one of our officers, shall in anything be at fault towards anyone, or shall have broken any one of the articles of this peace or of this security, and the offense be notified to four barons of the foresaid five and twenty, the said four barons shall repair to us (or our justiciar, if we are out of the realm) and, laying the transgression before us, petition to have that transgression redressed without delay. [Emphasis added]

Philip Kurland and Ralph Lerner’s invaluable The Founders’ Constitution contains in its section on the First Amendment the report ( of the 1688 “Trial of the Seven Bishops for Publishing a Libel.” The bishops were accused of libel when they attempted to petition King James II in protest of his declaration of limited religious freedom for Catholics and other dissenters from the Church of England. They were found not guilty after a trial in the Court of King’s Bench in which Justice Holloway told the jury:

Gentlemen, the end and intention of every action is to be considered; and likewise, in this case, we are to consider the nature of the offence that these noble persons are charged with; it is for delivering a petition, which, according as they have made their defence, was with all the humility and decency that could be: so that if there was no ill intent, and they were not (as it is not, nor can be pretended they were) men of evil lives, or the like, to deliver a petition cannot be a fault, it being the right of every subject to petition. If you are satisfied there was an ill intention of sedition, or the like, you ought to find them guilty: but if there be nothing in the case that you find, but only that they did deliver a petition to save themselves harmless, and to free themselves from blame, by shewing the reason of their disobedience to the king’s command, which they apprehended to be a grievance to them, and which they could not in conscience give obedience to, I cannot think it is a libel: it is left to you, gentlemen, but that is my opinion.

The 1689 Bill of Rights ( explicitly protected “the right of the subjects to petition the king” and said “all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.”

By the time the first amendments to the new United States Constitution were being considered in 1789, the right to petition was well established in U.S. practice. The colonies had widely recognized and employed the right of citizens to petition their government. The Declaration of Independence ( singled out the Crown’s treatment of colonists’ petitions for redress (“Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”) in its list of grievances. The debate over the initial proposal of the First Amendment recognition “that these rights belonged to the people” and the drafters “conceived them to be inherent; and all that they meant to provide was against their being infringed by the government.” The First Amendment’s explicit protection of the right from Congressional interference was not a novel development.

After John Quincy Adams left the presidency in 1829, he became embroiled in the most significant right of petition controversy in U.S. history. He had been elected to Congress and began presenting petitions in behalf of citizens calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. In the 1830s, a swelling number of petitions from abolitionists were being presented to Congress and the practice at that time of considering all petitions made the growing number seem unmanageable to some. Additionally, defenders of slavery preferred to silence the clamor over the terrible practice. In 1836, Congress adopted (117-68) a resolution: “That all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way or to any extent whatever, to the subject of slavery, or to the abolition of slavery, shall, without being printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.” Adams called this new “gag rule” “a direct violation of the constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents” and worked for eight years to see it repealed. In 1844, Representative Adams moved a resolution to revoke the rule (which had become a standing rule in 1840) that was adopted 108-80. This marked the high water mark of petitioning and in the aftermath, the right was “little exercised in the aftermath of the gag rule.” David C. Frederick, “John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Right of Petition” 9 Law & History Review 113 (Spring 1991).

These stories trace in broad outlines the “rise and fall” of the petition right; more accurately, the slow development, acceptance and constitutionalization, and relatively swift descent into disuse of this valuable right. Since the antebellum period, the right of petition has been largely neglected, though it is occasionally the subject of litigation and the U.S. Supreme Court decided a petition clause case, Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri, in 2011 (

Joseph Story describes the petition right as resulting “from the very nature of [the] structure and institutions” of “a republican government.” (Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution, vol. 3, §1887 at This comment may provide a clue to the relative disuse of the right since the Civil War. With the extension of the franchise to more and more Americans, the ability to directly communicate desires and disapproval to elected representatives by voting and through political parties, has probably eclipsed the importance of petitioning. Coupled with the enhanced status of the right of free speech and advances in communications technology, which fill many of the practical roles (such as providing information to legislatures and allowing citizens to express their opinions) that formal petitions served, the practice of petitioning Congress is not likely to make a resurgence.

This is not to say that the principles it protected are not still vital. The tendency of courts and the executive branch to make decisions previously understood to be only the province of the legislature, threaten the principles of representative government and can serve to exclude all but the most well-connected from influencing government. A proper understanding of what the right to petition was meant to protect could be a helpful spur to citizens to insist that its spirit—the ability of citizens to affect the legislative process—be respected and re-enthroned as a foundation of constitutional government.

William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.

March 1, 2012 

Essay #9

Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

The Right to Effective Citizenship

Free worship; free speech; freedom to publish; and the rights of the people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government: we cherish our First Amendment freedoms but we may not see how intimately they support one another, how much they need each other.

Free worship means that I may listen to the most important things, the first principles that govern my life, without fear of persecution.  These principles will anchor my conduct, providing me the standards by which I may judge my own actions and those of others.  Free speech and freedom to publish mean that I may safely tell people what I think, having worshipped—that is (among other things) having thought.

But what good would my worship, my speaking, and my writing be—beyond those who happen to worship with me, or hear me speak, or read my writings (small numbers all!)—if I and my fellow citizens had no right to get ourselves organized, to get the attention of our elected representatives, to do things that have real effects in our public life?

The right to assemble in public did not prevail in most places, in most times.  Public assemblies endanger rulers.  They can endanger the peace.  During the virulent civil wars of England, fought over intractable issues of religious conviction, what sensible king would not view such gatherings with fear and suspicion?  In his Letter Concerning Toleration the great English political philosopher John Locke acknowledged that assemblies of men had often been “nurseries of faction and sedition.”

But Locke went on to write that this was so only because “the unhappy circumstances of the oppressed or ill-settled liberty” make such men violent.  In an atmosphere of genuine religious toleration—of well-settled liberty—this need not be so.   After all, he argued, do men not meet peaceably every day in local markets?  Do they not circulate freely on the streets of cities?  Why then do rulers fear religious assemblies?  “Let us deal plainly,” Locke writes. “The magistrate is afraid of other churches, but not of his own; because he is kind and favourable to the one, but severe and cruel to the other.” But “let him let those dissenters enjoy but the same privileges in civil as in other subjects, and he will quickly find that these religious meetings will no longer be dangerous….  Just and moderate governments are everywhere quiet, everywhere, safe; but oppression raises ferments and makes men struggle to cast off an uneasy and tyrannical yoke.”

Thomas Jefferson knew his Locke. In the summer of 1774 he addressed his fellow citizens on General Gage’s proclamation in Massachusetts, “declaring aTreason for the Inhabitants of that Province to assemble themselves to consider of their Grievances and form Associations for their common Conduct on the Occasion.”  Gage was Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s army in America; his “odious and illegal proclamation must be considered as a plain and full Declaration that this despotick Viceroy will be bound by no Law, nor regard the constitutional Rights of his Majesty’s Subjects, whenever they interfere with the Plan he has formed for oppressing the good People of the Massachusetts Bay.” When Jefferson and his colleagues in the Continental Congress met two years later to issue their own proclamation—for independence and against tyranny—they never forgot that the right to assemble peaceably gives a people the way to carry their thoughts and speeches into civic action.

Fifteen years almost to the day on which Jefferson spoke, the House of Representatives debated the first ten amendments to the newly-ratified federal constitution.  The floor manager for the amendments was none other than Jefferson’s closest political ally, James Madison.  In the course of the debates the Congressmen showed that they understood matters exactly as Jefferson had done.  “If people converse together, they must assemble together,” one Member quite sensibly remarked.  But more, “the great end of meeting”—its purpose—“is to consult for the common good; but can the common good be discerned” unless “the object is reflected and shown in every light.”  That is, I may revolve a topic in my own mind a thousand times, but when when I share my thoughts with others  I will begin to see things I had overlooked.  This is the advantage of deliberation in common over mulling things over by oneself.  Still further, as another Member observed, “under a democracy, whose great end is to form a code of laws congenial to the public sentiment, the popular opinion ought to be collected and attended to.”  We not only need to think; once our thoughts have been refined and augmented by the thoughts of others, we then need to get the attention of those who can do something about the things upon which we have resolved.  The Congressmen knew that writing a letter to one’s Congressman will likely have far less effect than a petition signed by dozens—the product of a public assembly of citizens.  Therefore, the same Member concluded, “the people have the right to consult for the common good.”

When the French political philosopher and parliamentarian Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America a half a century later, he remarked on the importance of civil associations to American self-government.  Under the old states of Europe, the class of people who stood between the central state powers and the people had been the aristocrats—the same class that forced the Magna Charta on the King of England.  But in the modern world, Tocqueville saw (he being an aristocrat), aristocracy was declining.  Absent such a class, who or what would stand in the way of an oppressive central government tyrannizing the people.  Would democracy collapse upon itself, with the people first setting up a government and then watching helplessly as it moved ponderously to crush the very rights governments are designed to secure?

Not so in America, Tocqueville saw.  There, the citizens have learned to organize themselves not `vertically’ under an aristocratic class but `horizontally’ with civil associations: political parties, churches, clubs, societies—all of them with sufficient strength to push back against unwarranted governmental encroachments.  Tocqueville reported that Americans had perfected “the art of association” to the highest degree of any people, employing this art peacefully to defend their liberties against their own governments, when necessary.  To this day, Americans dissatisfied with their local school board, their state legislature, or the federal government itself, respond by getting together with like-minded citizens and—as we like to say–`taking control of their own lives.’  In so doing, they act exactly as John Locke, the American founders, and Tocqueville wanted and expected human beings to do.  Even more, by exercising the art of association Americans to a large and impressive degree govern themselves—that is, they get things done, so that governments will need to do less.  Governments that need to do less can be smaller and likely less oppressive than governments that think they need to do it all. And those fewer things they do need to do will likely be done better.

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan, where he has taught since 2000.

February 29, 2012 

Essay #8 

Guest Essayist: James C. Duff, CEO of the Newseum and the Diversity Institute, and President and CEO of the Freedom Forum

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of … the press ….”  Those words, along with all others in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, are engraved in the 74 foot high marble wall on the front of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  The words are simple.  Enforcing those words – though not always easy or successful – is crucial to our democracy.

I recently saw a friend touring the Newseum who told me of a Russian visitor’s observation about our freedoms.  The visitor said, “We have freedom of the press in Russia too.  The difference in America is you remain free after you publish.”  His comment is both humorous and profound.

Many countries have a Bill of Rights.  Very few have mechanisms to enforce and preserve those rights.  What distinguishes our system of government from most others in the world?  What breathes life into our Constitutional freedoms?  We are indebted to our founders for the brilliant system of checks and balances of power built into our Constitution.  One of the most important checks on power is an independent and free press, “designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials” as the Supreme Court noted in Mills v. Alabama (1966).

How do the mechanics and the design of the “powerful antidote” work?  Suppose Congress does make a law that abridges the freedom of the press.  In the United States, the press is free to challenge the law not only in print and other media, but also in court.  Once in court, an independent Judiciary is free to declare such a law unconstitutional and preserve the press’ freedom.  If Congress attempts to undercut the power of the Judiciary by, for example, requiring judges to explain their decisions to a Congressional committee or face impeachment for an unpopular decision, the press can expose the attempt and bring public pressure to bear on Congress.  Such critical analysis, coupled with an engaged and educated public can prevent the evisceration of an independent Judiciary (in this example) or other intrusions by one branch on another’s responsibilities.  The mechanics are circular and the gears work – most of the time.

Our history is certainly full of examples of a free and independent press exposing abuses of power by governmental officials.  Unfortunately, there are also examples in our history in which we have failed to enforce the freedom of press embodied in the First Amendment.

Only seven years after the ratification of the First Amendment, a Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, a tool used to suppress the contrary views of Democratic – Republican newspaper editors.  For example, Matthew Lyon, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Vermont and newspaper owner, was put in jail for referring to President John Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”  It became abundantly clear that the Act was unconstitutional, and a new Congress allowed the Act to expire in 1801 but not before several egregious suppressions of a free press had occurred.

There are several other examples of suppression of the press in our history, notably during periods of war.  Abolitionist newspapers were torched in the 1830’s.  During the Civil War, the Lincoln Administration ordered the closure of several newspapers and the arrests of several newspaper editors who opposed the Union efforts.  During World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson invoked it aggressively to suppress publications opposing to the draft, and in 1919 the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the convictions of Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer who had been convicted of violating the act when they printed leaflets urging draftees to resist the draft.  Similarly, the mailing privileges of the Milwaukee Leader were revoked by the Postmaster General during World War I because he concluded that their articles were interfering with the military’s efforts.  The Supreme Court upheld the Postmaster General’s actions.

In retrospect, it might appear that many of these historic suppressions of a free press could not occur in the United States today and that we have made significant progress and learned from those experiences.  During times of conflict, however, our country has compromised on freedom of the press.  Whether these particular examples could be repeated or not, they demonstrate that even with the protections clearly provided in our Constitution, and even with the best form of government ever devised to ensure those protections, ultimately the best defense of our Constitutional freedoms depends on an attentive, educated and engaged citizenry.

That is why the civic education efforts of Constituting America and the Freedom Forum are so vitally important to our future.

James C. Duff is the President and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum and CEO of the Newseum and the Diversity Institute.  Mr. Duff is the former Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, former Counselor to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and former Chairman of the U.S. Supreme Court Fellows Commission.

February 28, 2012 

Essay #7 


February 27, 2012 – Janine Turner Interviews Andrew Langer, President of the Institute for Liberty on The Janine Turner Radio Show!

Listen to Andrew & Janine discuss Andrew’s essay: The First Amendment: Congress Shall make no law….abridging the freedom of speech!

Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer, President of the Institute for Liberty

Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.

In our free republic, fewer rights are more cherished, or more important, than those enumerated in the First Amendment.  It is the hallmark of a free society that the people can speak their minds without fear of retribution from the government or other citizens.  Fundamentally, there are always two questions that accompany any dissection of free speech rights:  what is their seminal role in our society (ie, why do we have them?), and what are the limits to free speech?

People say things with which we might vehemently disagree.  They may make us angry, they may make us outraged.  And the feeling might very well be mutual.  Yet both their speech, and your own, are equally protected under the US Constitution.  For the United States, this creates a true marketplace of ideas.  A marketplace that has the benefit of allowing ideas that are reasoned, thoughtful, and valid to take hold, while ideas that simply aren’t (reasoned, thoughtful, or valid) to wither and die.

It is the latter that is perhaps free speech’s greatest asset in our society.  Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” and this is especially true when it comes to speech that, were it outlawed, would fester or become cancerous when kept behind closed doors.  In fact, when you look at societies within which free speech was outlawed, when those societies ultimately moved towards freedom, the forces of hate simply exploded on the scene, because for so long there had been no open debate or airing of the stilted beliefs of extremists groups.

In the US, we want people with the most hateful, horrible ideas to be able to say them, loudly and publicly.  That way, we can not only challenge them directly (if we want), but we know which people to avoid, if we want.  It’s as though they’ve put on the brightest, most-garish sign around their neck, saying, “AVOID ME,” and we’d be wise to heed their warnings.

Just as important, however, are the limits to those free speech rights.  It is one of the most basic hallmarks of our society that the exercise of rights is only justly limited by their direct and harmful impact on others.  In other words, I may have the right to swing my hands around wildly, but that right ends at the point where my hands meet someone else’s nose.

Though the adage still prevails that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” the truth is that words can and do hurt—and the law has made several important carve-outs for speech that is not protected by the 1st Amendment.

One of the most basic carve-outs is for speech that is considered defamatory—which, in laymen’s terms, is essentially knowingly spreading falsehoods about a person for the purposes of harming that person’s reputation—destroying a person’s personal life or ability to make a living.  Other restrictions are placed on speech that works to incite violence, or immediate wanton lawlessness—the concept that someone can neither work to provoke people to an immediate riot, or, likewise to yell “fire” in a crowded theater.  Commercial speech, and speech over the public airwaves, can also be regulated—generally under the concept that people cannot make false claims about the goods that they sell, and that because the government assigns space on the public airwaves, the government can prohibit certain kinds of content from being broadcast if it can be deemed offensive.

But by that same token, one of the most controversial debates over free speech today if found in the realm of whether or not corporate interests have free speech rights in the same manner that individuals do.  The Supreme Court ruled in their well-known Citizens’ United decision that, in point of fact, corporations do have these rights—a decision that many progressives have decried, and are attempting to undo.

Should they succeed, it would create a very dangerous situation—not only because these corporations are taxed and regulated very similarly to individuals (and, in some cases, more stringently), and therefore ought to be able, as affected entities within a society, to speak out on their own behalf, but many corporate institutions serve valuable purposes within our civil society.

If we fail to extend free speech protections to corporations, what is there to prevent an angered government, upset with a news company’s coverage of their actions, from shutting down that news organization’s business?  While some might argue that the government would be prevented from silencing the individual journalists within that organization, should the government succeed in closing down the corporation’s tools, the journalists will have been silenced.

Dissent is the hallmark of any free society—and whether that dissent comes from individuals or corporations, it is an essential element in civil discourse.  As a people we require free speech to allow good ideas to prevail, and bad ideas to be defeated.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, and host of The Broadside, a weekly internet radio show, which can be heard on the Institute for Liberty website.

February 27, 2012 

Essay #6 

Guest Essayist: Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Watch or Listen to Janine Turner Read: The First Amendment: The Free Exercise Clause – Guest Essayist: Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Guest Essayist: Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

The Free Exercise Clause is perhaps the least commonly understood part of the First Amendment. The mythical “average American” presumably understands what freedom of speech means – we protect the right of almost anyone to say almost anything – and the Establishment Clause has been given the catchy, if mostly inaccurate, shorthand of “separation of church and state.” But were one to ask this hypothetical average American what protecting free exercise of religion means, she might respond with a blank stare.

So why is the Free Exercise Clause so unknown, and what does it really mean today? Some blame for the Clause’s obscurity must lie with its checkered history. That history can be divided into roughly five stages. The first stage lasted 87 years, from 1791 to 1878, and was characterized by judicial silence. Although the Clause was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the Supreme Court had no occasion to address it, other than to say briefly, in 1842, that it applied only to the federal government, not states and cities. This silence does not mean that the Clause had no public meaning; indeed, it was cited time and again in debates over religion in the public square. But it did not appear in court, and its meaning remained rhetorical and political, not legal.

That first phase came to an end in 1878, with the Reynolds case. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause did not protect the practice of religious polygamy. Thus began an unsettled period for the Court’s Free Exercise jurisprudence. Two separate strands of caselaw emerged—one rooted in Reynolds and limitations on religious exercise, and another rooted in the ability of churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions to manage their own internal structures and their property.

The tensions in Free Exercise jurisprudence became apparent in a series of cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses during the 1940s. These cases at first resulted in at first narrow readings of the Clause and then increasingly broader readings that provided protections to the Jehovah’s Witness plaintiffs.

This second and turbulent stage ended, and the third began, with Sherbert v. Verner, decided in 1963. In that case, the Court took a very strong stand in favor of individual religious liberty, holding that a Seventh-day Adventist could not be denied unemployment benefits because she was fired from her job for observing the Sabbath. The Court said that any government-imposed “substantial burden” on religious activity would be very difficult for the government to justify. This standard, extremely protective of religious liberty, represented a high-water mark in the history of the protection of Free Exercise.

The Clause’s course took a sharp turn in a less religion-friendly direction 28 years after Sherbert was decided. In Employment Division v. Smith, decided in 1990, the Court held that Native Americans who had been convicted for smoking peyote in accordance with their religious beliefs did not have a right to state unemployment benefits. Because the Oregon anti-narcotic law at issue was a “neutral rule of general applicability” the Free Exercise Clause would provide no protection to the religious plaintiffs.

This was true even though, like the Sherbert regulation, the rule imposed a “substantial burden” on their religious activity. The Smith ruling represented a dramatic shift in the law of Free Exercise, making it much more difficult for religious people to protect themselves against religion-restrictive laws. For a time, it seemed that the only way to evade Smith’s rule would be by convincing Congress and state legislatures to provide relief in the form of civil rights statutes protecting religion.

But in 2012, the Court announced a fifth and entirely new stage of the Clause’s existence in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court held, in a 9-0 decision,that federal and state employment discrimination laws do not apply to “ministerial” positions. The Court thus made clear that Smith’s rule did not apply in the same way to religious institutions as it did to religious individuals. Indeed, religious activities related to “internal church decisions” would fall outside the Smith rule entirely, a result that shocked many long-time observers of the Court’s religion decisions.

The next steps for the law of Free Exercise are not clear, but they are much more hopeful for religious people and institutions than they were before Hosanna-Tabor was decided.One could argue that this up-and-down history shows a kind of national, or at least judicial, schizophrenia when it comes to the place of religious people in public life. But that schizophrenia may simply mirror Americans’ uncertainty about the role of religion in public life, especially given the increasing religious diversity of our nation. The law could move in the direction of France or other Western European countries that have in effect attempted to drive religion out of public life, or to control it directly. But the law might also move in the direction of increasing religious freedom for every American, and decreasing government interference with religious people.

So what should the Free Exercise Clause mean, at its most fundamental level? There is a case to be made that the Clause stands for the idea that every person, and every religious group, gets to decide for themselves what they believe about the good and the true, and to act on those beliefs in public. In that sense, the Clause carves out a kind of sacred space in the American body politic—a place where Americans can work out their relationship with God free from government interference, indeed, a place where the government must fear to tread. By its nature, religious freedom cannot be without limits. But by the same token government cannot be without limits, and some areas must remain completely free from government influence.

But this sacred space is under siege in today’s ever-growing regulatory state. As they expand their influence over more and more areas of American life, governments at the federal, state, and local levels increasingly run roughshod over the claims of conscience. Prominent recent examples include the federal government’s attempt in the Hosanna-Tabor case to take over some ministerial and hiring and firing decisions, as well as the recently-issued healthcare mandates that would force Catholic, Protestant, and other religious groups to violate their consciences by paying for drugs and devices they believe cause abortion. State governments have made similar attempts to limit the conscience rights of religious institutions like churches and homeless shelters, as well as the conscience rights of individuals like pharmacists and doctors who object to participating in certain medical procedures.

These conflicts will only grow in size and number as government expands and becomes more aggressively secular. Therefore it will be important for religious Americans in coming years to fight for the sacred space staked out by the Free Exercise Clause, because government will not stay out on its own.

Eric Rassbach is Deputy General Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm based in Washington, D.C. that defends the free expression of all religious traditions. He led the Becket Fund team that litigated the Hosanna-Tabor case.

February 24, 2012 

Essay #5 

Guest Essayist: David J. Bobb, Ph.D., director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.

Watch or Listen to Janine Turner Read: The First Amendment: The Establishment Clause – Guest Essayist: David J. Bobb, Ph.D., director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.


Guest Essayist:David J. Bobb, Ph.D., director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.

The First Amendment:  The Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment might be less well known today than “the wall of separation between church and state” metaphor used by President Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter.  This misinterpreted metaphor has come to define the modern debate over church and state, leading many Americans to believe that the Constitution calls for the strict separation of religion and politics.

In fact, what the Establishment Clause actually accomplished is nearly opposite what the Supreme Court in the twentieth century said it means.  In barring Congress from establishing a national church, the Establishment Clause marked an important commitment of the Founders to civil and religious liberty.  Unlike England, America would not have an official church.  This is good for government, and good for religion.  Congress was prohibited from imposing a one-size-fits-all religious straitjacket on the nation, leaving state governments wide latitude of operation in matters of church and state.

In the 1947 Supreme Court decision in Everson v. Board of Education, the First Amendment policy of federalism was supplanted by the doctrine of incorporation.  Ruling that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is applied not just against Congress but also against the states (through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment), the Court put itself on a quick path to becoming the national arbiter of all disputes over religious matters pertaining to public entities.  As Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state.  That wall must be kept high and impregnable.  We could not approve the slightest breach . . . .”

Under this new standard, the Supreme Court found breaches in the wall nearly everywhere it looked, as it ruled unconstitutional many longstanding practices, including prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  Assuming the mantle of a “national school board,” as one scholar put it, the Court put forward various “tests” by which it sought to determine the religious or secular purpose of public assistance to religion.

The modern legal understanding of the Establishment Clause has led to a confusing array of contradictory decisions.  For instance, whether a municipal crèche display is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause hinges in part on what other symbols—religious or secular—are included in front of city hall.  State laws allowing government funding of secular textbooks for private schools have been deemed by the Court constitutional, but government funding of field trips in private schools has been held unconstitutional.

For the Founders, public support of religion, whether by the federal or state government, was never tantamount to the unconstitutional establishment of religion. In fact, nearly all of the Founders held that the public promotion of religion and virtue was vital to the maintenance of republican institutions.  Religion was affirmed as a public good, not an evil to be kept private.  Prudence dictated, many early Americans believed, that state established churches did not make for good policy, but none argued that when a dispute arose in a state about its established church, or public support of religion, that the national government should step in and impose a solution.  That was a matter for the states to decide, and increasingly they would do so informed by constitutions and laws that upheld the full natural rights of all citizens.

Protection of religious liberty was of paramount importance to the Founders, but the means by which citizens were protected in their liberty came not mainly in the adoption of the Establishment Clause, but in the constitutional architecture as a whole.  “The Constitution is a bill of rights,” Alexander Hamilton said, emphasizing the fact that the locus of liberty is not any list, but rather the equipoise of limited government, federalism, and separation of powers that should be maintained in the Constitution’s structure.

Finally, it is worth noting that the First Amendment was not even first on the list of twelve that James Madison originally proposed in the First Congress in June 1789.  Nor was it first in the list the Congress sent to the states in September of that same year.  When the two amendments preceding what is now the First Amendment were not ratified immediately (one was about representative ratios, while the other, which was adopted as the 27th Amendment, was about congressional compensation), the Establishment Clause was thrust into its starring role as the first clause in the First Amendment.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is a clear statement of the fact that the United States of America has no official church.  In endorsing the federalism of the Constitution, and explicitly barring Congress from arrogating unto itself power it does not have, the Establishment Clause reaffirms the powerful commitment of the Constitution to the promotion of civil and religious liberty.


David J. Bobb, Ph.D., is director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.  Hillsdale’s free online course, “Constitution 101,” starts this week.  The U.S. Constitution: A Reader, around which the course is based, includes 113 documents, including a complete section on religious liberty.

February 23, 2012 

Essay #4 

Guest Essayists: Mr. Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO for Liberty Institute, and Justin Butterfield, Constitutional Attorney, Liberty Institute

Amendment I

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.

First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Perhaps the most important and the most contentious portion of the United States Constitution, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—the first of the Bill of Rights—was instrumental in ensuring that the new Constitution would be accepted by citizens of the fledgling United States at the end of the eighteenth century. The Constitution set up a government of limited, enumerated powers. “Enumerated powers” meant that the federal government, as originally envisioned, could take no action unless the Constitution explicitly granted the government the power to take that action. In theory, then, the federal government could not restrict freedom of speech because the Constitution did not give Congress permission to restrict freedom of speech. Many American citizens, however, having just fought a war resulting from Britain’s disregard for their rights, were leery of entrusting their newly-won freedom to a government with no explicit protections for individual rights. They did not believe that the “lack of permission” for Congress to act was strong enough protection. To address these concerns, twelve articles, known as the Bill of Rights, were submitted to the states for ratification as amendments to the Constitution. Of these twelve articles, the last ten were ratified in the eighteenth century (the second article of the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Unlike the main text of the Constitution, the articles of the Bill of Rights are explicit prohibitions on the government, designed to prevent the federal government from being able to trample on the rights of states and citizens.

The First Amendment famously begins, “Congress shall make no law….” The First Amendment originally limited only Congress and, thus, the federal government. State and local governments were not limited by this (or any other) amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment was considered to only apply to the federal government until 1925 when the Supreme Court, in Gitlow v. New York, held that the Fourteenth Amendment, which applies to the states, “incorporated” the First Amendment.

Following the statement that the First Amendment applies to Congress are five clauses, each protecting one aspect of the flow of ideas. These five clauses are the Establishment Clause (“…respecting an establishment of religion”), the Free Exercise Clause (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”), the Free Speech Clause (“or abridging the freedom of speech”), the Free Press Clause (“or of the press”), and the Assembly and Petition Clause (“or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”).

The first two clauses of the First Amendment protect religious liberty. The Establishment Clause, a reaction against the abuses of the Church of England, was originally intended to prohibit the government from establishing an official national religion or supporting one religious denomination over another. This clause has since been re-interpreted to say that government may not favor religion in general, thus leading to increased attempts to secularize society, including banning any possibly perceived “endorsement” of religion by the government. The Free Exercise Clause is the counterpoint to the Establishment Clause. While the Establishment Clause prevents the government from establishing a religion, the Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with individuals’ religious expression.

The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protects the expression of ideas. Not all speech is equally protected, however. Political speech is afforded the greatest protection under the First Amendment. Commercial speech—speech done to make a profit—is given less protection. The guaranty of freedom of speech does not extend to certain types of speech, such as obscenity or speech that incites immediate violence. The government is also allowed to place some reasonable limits on when, where, and how speech can take place, but these limits cannot be used to favor one viewpoint over another. For example, a government can prohibit the use of megaphones at night near residential areas, or a government can prohibit a demonstration from walking through a secured military base. If, however, the government allows one group to use a megaphone at night near a residential area, then the government cannot prohibit another group from doing so based on the viewpoint that the second group espouses.

The Free Press Clause is closely related to the Free Speech Clause, but applies to printed communications. This clause has also been used to strike down taxes that specifically target newspapers and laws that require “fairness” in reporting.

Finally, the Assembly and Petition Clause protects the right of people to assemble together and to petition the government. This clause is important in a republic because petitioning the government is one of the main ways the citizenry exercises its sovereignty. While this clause protects the right of the people to petition the government, it does not require that government officials actually listen to or respond to any petition attempt.

Ultimately, a true republican form of government cannot exist apart from the free flow of ideas. Additionally, this amendment ensures that the government cannot impose a state orthodoxy, violating the conscience of those who hold unpopular views or forcing them into intellectual submission. This amendment also ensures that open debate is not thwarted, for as John Milton said, “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.”

Kelly Shackelford, Esq., is President/CEO for Liberty Institute, a post he has held since 1997. A constitutional scholar, Mr. Shackelford has argued before the United States Supreme Court, testified before the U.S. House and Senate on Constitutional issues, and is on the Board of Trustees of the United States Supreme Court Historical Society.

Justin Butterfield, Esq. is a Constitutional attorney on staff with Liberty Institute. Mr. Butterfield graduated from Harvard Law School in 2007.  He also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso where he graduated Summa Cum Laude.