Our Courts And The First Amendment

YOUR TURN

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Freedom, faith, and nation -- Part IV

In the year 1781, with the surrender of Cornwallis, the American Revolution was effectively over. Two years later, England recognized our right to govern ourselves, but while we were free at last to govern ourselves, we had yet to prove that we had the ability to draft a constitution that would allow us to do so.

A reading of the Constitution shows that one of its primary aims was to limit the power of government, reserving to the people all those powers that were not specifically granted to the government. For some of our forefathers, particularly Jefferson and Madison, that was not good enough. They demanded that a Bill of Rights, specifically stating the individual rights of the people, be added.

It may surprise you to learn that a motion to add such a bill was overwhelmingly defeated. However, to become the law of the land, the Constitution had to be ratified by the states, and it soon became clear that the people of this new nation of ours would not ratify a constitution that did not specifically guarantee our individual rights, in particular the right to worship as we see fit. Under pressure from the states, the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, was added.

The claim is sometimes made that our rights, in particular our religious rights, have been eroded over the years by our courts. In fact, the charge has been made during a few overheated political campaigns that our courts are "anti-religion."

Now, any charge made during a political campaign deserves close scrutiny, and this charge is certainly no different. Perhaps the best way to decide how our courts in general, and our Supreme Court in particular, feel about religion is to read some of the things they have had to say in their decisions.

Let's do that.

Zorach v. Clausen, 1952: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses.

"We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary."

Let's read that again. "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. ..."

That is a very strong statement, one that leaves no doubt about where our justices stand. And it pretty much sums up what the Supreme Court has had to say in many, many other decisions, before and since, which you are welcome to read for yourself.

In that very same decision, the justices go on to point out something else about this great nation of ours, something about which they sound downright proud. They say, "Under our system of religious freedom, people have gone to their religious sanctuaries not because they feared the law but because they loved their God."

Loved their God. Hm-m-m. Anything wrong with that?

In another decision, School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 1963, the justices amplified their position by saying, "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one. ..." And they made it plain, in the very same decision -- about as bluntly as it can be made -- when they said, "... the State may not establish a religion of secularism [by] opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do. ..."

Words like those, and many others you will discover for yourself if you find the time to actually read through some of the decisions of our high court, will leave no doubt in your mind about how our Supreme Court justices feel about religion. And if you take a close look at the personal lives of the men and women who have served on the Supreme Court over the centuries, you have another pleasant surprise coming to you. They're a fine bunch.

In the last of these short articles, we'll take look at a few more decisions. A couple of them may make you feel downright proud to be an American. And you just might come away believing that it's possible to love both your God and your country.

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