Friday, July 31, 2009

Interesting Word, "Respecting"

Words are important. They have specific meanings. Consider the word "respecting." In can mean "showing respect." But it can also mean "with regard to" or "regarding" or "relating to."

In history class I hope we all learned that a great many of the colonists in early American had come here for religious freedom. That doesn't mean they were totally accepting of others' belief; often they were fairly restrictive within their own venues. By the time our Constitution was ratified, about half of our states had an official religion.

The very act of forming a large, unified body as the government of the United States was frightening to many. They knew how governments tend to take more and more power. They were afraid of losing their independent rights, but clearly they needed some form of national government to protect them and to handle many common functions.

They also knew well how damaging a national religion (such as the Church of England) can be to religious fre

The Constitution itself was written as a document to grant only certain enumerated powers to the central government. But many still worried, so the Bill of Rights (first 10 Amendments) was drafted. It was to assure the states and citizens that they had rights the government would not have power over.

Looking at the First Amendment in that light, what was the meaning of "respecting?"

The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"

In context of the times, it seems clear that it intended to guarantee that Congress will make no law relating to the established religions in place. If your state had an official religion, the Congress would not be allowed to interfere. Surely it also meant that Congress would not make a national religion, because they could make no law having to do with their establishment of a religion. Consider James Madison's summary of the Establishment Clause:

Madison on the First Amendment
"The First Amendment was prompted because the people feared one sect might obtain preeminence, or two combine together and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform."

Madison went through several drafts to come up with wording the entire Constitutional Convention would accept. Here is one draft:

"The civil right 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. No state shall violate the equal rights of conscience..."

Doesn't that make it clear that this Amendment was not intended to exclude a recognition of religion by government?

Yet some groups today sue a local school for using sacred music as part of a choral program, supposedly based on the restrictions of the Establishment Clause. The same basis is used by some to say a Christian group may not use school facilities, even though the facilities are used by non-Christian groups.

The ACLU themselves said about a 1947 Supreme Court decision that "it gave new meaning to the First Amendment." That decision had a very long definition of what the First Amendment means, using ideas that are not expressed in the Amendment above (nor had they been expressed in precedent).

If we look at the actual words of the First Amendment and at the preceding draft, it doesn't need to get so convoluted.

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