Gordon Walter’s column on the First Amendment completely missed the context in which the founders wrote it.
He claims the Bill of Rights’ “separation of church and state” came after the colonies had 150 years of experience of church mixed with government. That observation tellingly demonstrates that the founders did not espouse the current misinterpretation of the First Amendment.
A bit of history is necessary to put the founders’ intended meaning to the First Amendment into its proper context. In England, King Henry XIII disenfranchised the Roman Catholic Church because the pope refused to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He founded the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church.
This began a time of persecution for Catholics. When Henry’s daughter, “Bloody Mary,” daughter of Catherine of Aragon and staunch Roman Catholic, became queen, she persecuted the Protestant priests and parishioners.
The First Amendment was written specifically to address this problem. It needs to be understood primarily in this context. Consider the words of Justice Joseph Story, appointed by Madison to the Supreme Court when he was only 32 years old. In his commentary on the Constitution, Story wrote: “The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects [denominations] and to prevent any ecclesiastical patronage of the national government.”
Justice Story further said: “We are not to attribute this prohibition of a national religious establishment [in the First Amendment] to indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence than the framers of the Constitution).
“Probably, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the amendment to it now under consideration, the general, if not universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship.
“Any attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.”
In 1892, the Supreme Court in the “Trinity” decision ruled unanimously: “These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation … we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth.”
Walter cited the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, again not considering the context or the reason for the amendment. After the slaves were emancipated, several Southern states passed laws depriving the former slaves of the right to carry arms or to otherwise protect themselves.
Those states, had in effect, abrogated the Second Amendment rights of the former slaves (now full-fledged citizens). Congress passed the 14th Amendment to compel those states to recognize the full constitutional rights of the former slaves.
Although the 14th Amendment did compel the states, as a matter of state policy, to recognize the “establishment clause,” of the First Amendment, it only prohibited the states from any longer endorsing one Christian denomination over another. There is nothing in the deliberations then, or at the Constitutional Convention, that disavowed our Christian heritage. Nor can any such sentiment be found in Madison’s notes, which he took during the convention.
Now, as considering the Everson decision in 1947, Walter is correct in so far as this definitely broke new ground. In fact, it violated 150 years of firmly established precedent. In effect, it reinterpreted the First Amendment, and for the first time provided a way in which the free exercise clause could now be seriously diminished.
Furthermore, the Everson decision was a narrow 5-4 decision in contrast with the “Trinity decision,” which was unanimous. The decision as handed down, written by Hugo Black, was nearly verbatim, the friend of the court brief written by ACLU lawyer Leo Pfeffer.
“Everson” essentially amended the Constitution through judicial fiat, rather than through the channels provided in the Constitution.
Also ignored by Walter is the fact that the very first act of Congress, after the swearing in, was to authorize the printing of 5,000 Bibles to use in missionary work with the Indians.
Walter’s column, while citing some historical facts, is disingenuous for leaving out the background behind those facts.
Walters’ statement that the “meaning of the First Amendment is crystal clear” is correct: only not in the sense he intended. That “crystal clear” meaning is that originally the federal government was forbidden from endorsing one Christian religious denomination over another. With the 14th Amendment, the states were now forbidden from endorsing one Christian denomination over another.
It is this kind of doublespeak that has placed our Constitution in jeopardy. I encourage the reading of Mark Levin’s book “The Liberty Amendments.” He demonstrates quite ably how progressives have twisted our Constitution into something the founders would barely recognize. He also provides a solution to correct the rape of our Constitution.