“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Seems pretty simple, right?
Let’s break it down.
“Congress:” the legislative body that makes the laws our country follows.
“Shall make no law:” that’s pretty self-explanatory.
“Respecting an establishment of religion,” this is where it gets a bit tricky.
This is what we refer to as the “Establishment Clause.” What it means is that we basically cannot have a national religion as established by Congress.
“Nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof:” no laws can be made that infringe upon the rights of believers to exercise their beliefs.
So if the First Amendment is that simple. Why is there so much controversy surrounding it? To clarify this, one must read the amendment again and recognize that nowhere does it say anything about “separation of church and state.” In fact this phrase does not appear in an official United States Document until Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black coined it as “official policy” in the 1947 case of Everson vs. Board of Education of Ewing Township. The question in debate during this case was whether state of New Jersey could pay for the transportation of students to parochial schools.
Many people cite Thomas Jefferson for the idea of “separation of church and state,” and while it is true that he wrote those words, it was in a personal letter which was sent to the Danbury Baptists to assure them that the federal government would not keep them from practicing their religion. Jefferson borrowed the phrase from a well-known sermon by Baptist minister and founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams. In this sermon, Williams depicts the church as a garden, the outside world as the wilderness and the “wall” as a mechanism used to protect the church from the encroaching wilderness. The Founding Fathers agreed with this interpretation, and that was the intent of the separation clause-to keep the government out of religion, not the other way around.
Does anyone honestly think that the Founding Fathers, most of whom were practicing Christians, meant to deny the rights of students to public prayer, the banning of the Bible from school libraries, forbid the mentioning of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, prohibit the display of the Ten Commandments (which many of our laws are based on), the outlawing of a banner that read “God Bless America” after the 9/11 attacks or not allowing a nativity scene to be put up at Christmas? How are any of these things establishing a national religion? They are not!
“The metaphor of a wall of separation is bad history and worse law. It has made a positive chaos out of court rulings. It should be explicitly abandoned,” Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist said. The commonly accepted idea of “separation of church and state” is a complete and utter myth.