Commentary - Thoughts on religion and the First AmendmentIn Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist observed, “It seems highly unlikely that the House of Representatives would simultaneously consider proposed amendments to the Constitution and enact an important piece of territorial legislation which conflicted with the intent of those proposals…”
By Melva Jean Ruckheim, Parkers Prairie, MN
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist observed, “It seems highly unlikely that the House of Representatives would simultaneously consider proposed amendments to the Constitution and enact an important piece of territorial legislation which conflicted with the intent of those proposals…”
The First Amendment and the Northwest Ordinance were considered during the same time period.
August 7, 1789 – Congress reenacted the Northwest Ordinance, 1 Stat. 50, giving land grants to schools, including religious ones, "[r]eligion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”
What consideration was given to the First Amendment prior to that?
June 8, 1789 – Madison introduced his proposals for amendments to the U.S. Constitution. There was debate that day as well as on July 21, 1789.
July 28, 1789 – The select committee reported: “ART. 1, SEC. 9 — Between PAR. 2 and 3 insert, ‘No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.’ "
September 25, 1789 – Congress proposed the 10 amendments to the states. That was the same day that Representative Boudinot proposed a resolution for a joint committee to ask President Washington to issue a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.
The next day the Senate agreed to that resolution.
October 3, 1789 – President Washington issued the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.
If “separation of church and state” had been the intent of the First Amendment, one would expect that those who voted for it would vote against the Thanksgiving Proclamation. That didn’t happen. Boudinot and Sherman favored the Thanksgiving Proclamation and voted for the First Amendment. Tucker opposed the Proclamation and also opposed the adoption of the First Amendment.
The founders didn’t believe that using public buildings for church services violated the First Amendment. Church services were held in the U.S. House of Representatives until 1868. Church services were also held in the Supreme Court chamber and in the first Treasury Building.
Two days after Thomas Jefferson sent the letter that first used the phrase “separation of church and state” to the Danbury Baptists, he began attending church services in the U.S. House of Representatives. Margaret Bayard Smith, an early Washington "insider," observed:
"Jefferson during his whole administration was a most regular attendant…”
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher and statesman, visited America in 1831. In Volume 1 of his book, Democracy in America, he wrote, “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; the Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other…”
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States in 1867: “Every American colony, from its foundation down to the revolution, with the exception of Rhode Island (if, indeed, that state be an exception), did openly, by the whole course of its laws and institutions, support and sustain, in some form, the Christian religion…And this has continued to be the case in some of the states down to the present period, without the slightest suspicion, that it was against the principles of public law, or republican liberty.”
June 17, 1963 – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “As a matter of history, the First Amendment was adopted solely as a limitation upon the newly created National Government…Each state was left free to…pursue its own policy with respect to religion...”
From the beginning, Virginia pursued disestablishmentarianism. By contrast, Massachusetts didn’t “de-establish” its official religion until 1833.