Amendment I (Religion)

Document 67

William Rawle, A View of the Constitution of the United States 121--23 1829 (2d ed.)

The first amendment prohibits congress from passing any law respecting an establishment of religion, or preventing the free exercise of it. It would be difficult to conceive on what possible construction of the Constitution such a power could ever be claimed by congress. The time has long passed by when enlightened men in this country entertained the opinion that the general welfare of a nation could be promoted by religious intolerance, and under no other clause could a pretence for it be found. Individual states whose legislatures are not restrained by their own constitutions, have been occasionally found to make some distinctions; but when we advert to those parts of the Constitution of the United States, which so strongly enforce the equality of all our citizens, we may reasonably doubt whether the denial of the smallest civic right under this pretence can be reconciled to it. In most of the governments of Europe, some one religious system enjoys a preference, enforced with more or less severity, according to circumstances. Opinions and modes of worship differing from those which form the established religion, are sometimes expressly forbidden, sometimes punished, and in the mildest cases, only tolerated without patronage or encouragement. Thus a human government interposes between the Creator and his creature, intercepts the devotion of the latter, or condescends to permit it only under political regulations. From injustice so gross, and impiety so manifest, multitudes sought an asylum in America, and hence she ought to be the hospitable and benign receiver of every variety of religious opinion. It is true, that in her early provincial stage, the equality of those rights does not seem to have been universally admitted. Those who claimed religious freedom for themselves, did not immediately perceive that others were also entitled to it; but the history of the stern exclusion or reluctant admission of other sects in several of the provinces, would be an improper digression in this work. In tracing the annals of some of the provinces, it is pleasing to observe that in the very outset, their enlightened founders publicly recognised the perfect freedom of conscience. There was indeed sometimes an inconsistency, perhaps not adverted to in the occlusion of public offices to all but Christians, which was the case in Pennsylvania, but it was then of little practical importance. In the constitution adopted by that state in 1776, the same inconsistency, though expressed in language somewhat different, was retained, but in her present constitution, nothing abridges, nothing qualifies, nothing defeats, the full effect of the original declaration. Both the elector and the elected are entitled, whatever their religious tenets may be, to the fullest enjoyment of political rights, provided in the latter description, the party publicly declares his belief in the being of a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments. This qualification is not expressly required of an elector, and perhaps was introduced in respect to those elected, chiefly for the purpose of more particularly explaining the sense of a preceding section. It is indeed to such a degree doubtful whether any can be found so weak and depraved as to disbelieve these cardinal points of all religions, that it can scarcely be supposed to have been introduced for any other purpose.1

Just and liberal principles on this subject, throw a lustre round the Constitution in which they are found, and while they dignify the nation, promote its internal peace and harmony. No predominant religion overpowers another, the votaries of which are few and humble; no lordly hierarchy excites odium or terror; legal persecution is unknown, and freedom of discussion, while it tends to promote the knowledge, contributes to increase the fervour of piety.

  1. There are now but two states in the Union whose constitutions contain exclusive provisions in regard to religious opinions. In Maryland, no one who does not believe in the Christian religion can be admitted to an office of trust or profit. In North Carolina, the same exclusion is extended to all who deny the truth of the protestant religion. But in every other respect than the capacity to hold such offices, all stand on the same footing in both states.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Religion), Document 67
The University of Chicago Press

Rawle, William. A View of the Constitution of the United States of America. 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1829. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.

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