In a Thanksgiving proclamation, Nov. 12, 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt stated: “Let us then on the day appointed offer our devotions and our humble thanks to Almighty God and pray that the people of America will be guided by Him in helping their fellow men.”
On March 15, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt warned at the Dinner of White House Correspondents: “Modern tyrants find it necessary to eliminate all democracies. … A few weeks ago I spoke of … freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way. … If we fail – if democracy is superseded by slavery – then those … freedoms, or even the mention of them, will become forbidden things. Centuries will pass before they can be revived. … When dictatorships disintegrate – and pray God that will be sooner … then our country must continue to play its great part. … May it be said of us in the days to come that our children and our children’s children rise up and call us blessed.”
The Senate voted down letting children voluntarily pray in public schools on March 15, 1984. President Reagan said: “I am deeply disappointed that, although a majority of the Senate voted for it, the school prayer amendment fell short.”
On Sept. 25, 1982, Ronald Reagan said: “Unfortunately, in the last two decades we’ve experienced an onslaught of such twisted logic that if Alice were visiting America, she might think she’d never left Wonderland. We’re told that it somehow violates the rights of others to permit students in school who desire to pray to do so. Clearly this infringes on the freedom of those who choose to pray, the freedom taken for granted since the time of our Founding Fathers. …”
Reagan continued: “To prevent those who believe in God from expressing their faith is an outrage. … The relentless drive to eliminate God from our schools … should be stopped.”
Reagan said Feb. 25, 1984: “Sometimes I can’t help but feel the First Amendment is being turned on its head.”
President Reagan stated in a Q & A Session, Oct. 13, 1983: “The First Amendment has been twisted to the point that freedom of religion is in danger of becoming freedom from religion.”
Reagan told the Alabama Legislature, March 15, 1982: “To those who cite the First Amendment as reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions and every-day life, may I just say: The First Amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.”
To understand the meaning of the First Amendment, it is necessary to read the debates of those who proposed and passed it.
George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a member of the Constitutional Convention, was largely responsible for insisting that the powers of federal government be limited by a Bill of Rights.
Referred to as “Father of the Bill of Rights,” George Mason proposed: “All men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular sect or society of Christians ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.”
On June 8, 1789, James Madison introduced the wording: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”
On Aug. 15, 1789, the House Select Committee revised it to: “No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”
Peter Sylvester of New York thought of that wording: “It might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.”
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said it would read better: “No religious doctrine shall be established by law.”
James Madison: “… apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.”
Benjamin Huntington of Connecticut protested that: “The words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion (suggesting) the amendment be made in such a way as to secure the rights of religion, but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all.”
James Madison agreed with Huntington and Sylvester, that he: “… believes that the people feared one sect might obtain a preeminence, or two (Anglican & Congregational) combine and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.”
Roger Sherman did not want the amendment as the federal government was not to have any say in what was under States’ jurisdictions.
Madison, wanting to clarify that individual states would not be limited by the Amendment, proposed the insertion of the word “national” before religion.
On Aug. 15, 1789, Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire proposed: “Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.”
The House agreed and accepted the first five words of this version.
On Aug. 20, 1789, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts suggested: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.”
The House accepted this and sent it to the Senate.
On Sept. 3, 1789, the Senate proposed several versions in succession:
- “Congress shall not make any law infringing the rights of conscience, or establishing any religious sect or society.”
- “Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.”
- “Congress shall make no law establishing one religious society in
preference to others, or to infringe on the rights of conscience.”
At the end of the day, Sept. 3, 1789, the Senate accepted: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
On Sept. 9, 1789, the Senate agreed on the version: “Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”
A joint House and Senate committee gave the final wording: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Justice Joseph Story, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by James Madison, wrote in “A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States,” 1840: “The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”
Justice Hugo Black wrote the Everson v. Board of Education opinion in 1947 which removed religion out from states’ jurisdiction, significantly affecting the original understanding. Appointed by Franklin Roosevelt, Black had never been a judge before, but a Democrat Senator (and former KKK member), from Alabama.
Professor Daniel L. Dreisbach of the Department of Justice, Law & Society at American University in Washington D.C., wrote in “Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State” (New York University Press, 2002): “Significantly, Hugo Black’s biographer reported that the justice did not peruse the proceedings of the First Congress, which debated the provision now known as the First Amendment until ‘after Everson was decided.'”
Ronald Reagan stated in a Radio Address, 1982: “The Constitution was never meant to prevent people from praying; its declared purpose was to protect their freedom to pray.”
Reagan stated in a radio address, Feb. 25, 1984: “Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart noted if religious exercises are held to be impermissible activity in schools, religion is placed at an artificial and state-created disadvantage. Permission for such exercises for those who want them is necessary if the schools are truly to be neutral in the matter of religion. And a refusal to permit them is seen not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism.”
Ronald Reagan told the Annual Convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, Jan. 30, 1984: “I was pleased last year to proclaim 1983 the Year of the Bible. But, you know, a group called the ACLU severely criticized me for doing that. Well, I wear their indictment like a badge of honor.”
Reagan worded it differently on the National Day of Prayer, May 6, 1982: “Well-meaning Americans in the name of freedom have taken freedom away. For the sake of religious tolerance, they’ve forbidden religious practice.”
Ronald Reagan stated at an Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast, Aug. 23, 1984: “The frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance and freedom and open-mindedness. Question: Isn’t the real truth that they are intolerant of religion?”
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