What DOES the First Amendment Say?

Once again, another court case is on the books regarding separation of church and state. This time due to high-school officials taking down a copy of the Ten Commandments from a student’s locker. Fortunately, this was reversed and the student is now allowed to post the Commandments on his locker again.

If only people could take a moment to think about not only what the First Amendment entails, but also what it doesn’t entail, we would see fewer of these types of things happening. It goes further than the idea that some people want to abolish religion altogether. Perhaps the point of my frustration with this is the lack of thinking that goes into these things.

One thing that seems to be seriously lacking in our schools today (and our society for the most part) is critical thinking skills. So many people buy into rhetoric without ever examining pesky little things like facts. For the record, a student at a public school is not violating any church/state separation issues if they post religious statements, sing religious songs, wear clothes with religious symbols or messages, talk about their faith or anything like that.

To be clear about this, let’s just take another look at what the First Amendment says as it seems that a reminder is in order, again:

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.

So, let’s go ahead and think this through together using this latest story as an example. A high-school student posts the Ten Commandments on his locker. Is the student a member of Congress? No. Is he attempting to “make a law respecting an establishment of religion?” No. Is he “prohibiting the free exercise thereof?” No.

In fact, if anything, the school was violating the First Amendment when they actually did attempt to prohibit “the free exercise” of the student’s religion. When we don’t understand how the First Amendment “erects a wall of separation between Church and State” (to quote Thomas Jefferson, who coined the term), then we start to misunderstand what constitutes a violation of this amendment.

I would go so far as to say that prohibiting teachers from talking about their faith in the classroom is not, in fact, a violation of the First Amendment according to the verbiage of the amendment itself. Now, I would agree that public school teachers should be careful to avoid this even if, strictly speaking, it doesn’t violate this amendment. There are a number of reasons for this and I’m not sure many people would argue about that point.

But, to be honest about it, a public school teacher is not Congress. A public school teacher who discusses their faith in the classroom is not making a law establishing a religion. Nor does it (necessarily) prohibit the free exercise thereof. While I think it’s good for them to avoid discussing their faith in the classroom, someone please help me understand how this actually violates the First Amendment.

The Amendment does not state that a court building cannot display the Ten Commandments. It does not say that a public official cannot discuss their faith. It does not say that religious statues, plaques, texts, images or anything else cannot be erected, displayed, posted or otherwise visible on government owned property. It just says that Congress cannot make laws about it.

What it means, in a nutshell, is that Congress can’t make anyone adhere to a particular religion, nor can the keep anyone from adhering to one. That’s all. Nothing more. We need to call it out when people try to claim that the First Amendment means something that it does not mean. What follows from the First Amendment is very clear and, sadly, often misunderstood, misconstrued or misrepresented by people who should know better.

Rant complete. Thank you for listening.

Grace, love and peace.

P.S. Just read a from Baltimore. Seems like David Rocah from the ACLU has not yet figured out that “parents and students” is not Congress. Nor has he figured out that their own private decision to “peaceably assemble” and exercise their beliefs is protected by the very amendment he claims prevents them from doing so.

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