The Free Exercise of Religion in America

The following is a submitted assignment from a class I am taking on the United States Constitution which I thought this audience might appreciate:

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads as follows:

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 (“The Constitution of the United States,” Amendment 5).

Arguably, and to various degrees, each clause of this amendment has been violated at different points in American history. Freedom of speech is now relegated to approved “zones (Hanna, 2009).” The press has been highly regulated at various points, most notably by the crippled but remerging “fairness doctrine (Almond, 2009).” And groups wishing to assemble to petition their government are required to file for permits which may be rejected arbitrarily (Hanna, 2009).

Perhaps no clause has been more abused and misinterpreted than the “establishment clause,” which restricts Congress from creating a church or restricting the free exercise of religion. Early American history demonstrates a common understanding of this clause which was eventually rejected by the Supreme Court in its landmark Engel v. Vitale decision in 1962, which instigated a shift in the definition of “establishment” from enforcement of a particular religion to the mere mention of anything religious .

Before considering Engel v. Vitale, it is appropriate to consider the context in which the First Amendment along with the whole of the Constitution was written, who wrote it, and what they had to say about it. There may be no better proxy for this investigation than the US Congress, as assembled in 1854 to address objections brought by select plaintiffs against “public religious expressions by legislative chaplains paid for by State budgets (Wallbuilders.org, 2009).” The plaintiffs argued that such religious expressions, funded by government and conducted in a government venue, violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. The resulting House report on the issue found the alleged violation contrived, citing the establishment and perpetuation of legislative chaplains under the tenure of the First Congress, which included many of the very men who framed the First Amendment.

On the 1st day of May [1789], Washington’s first speech was read