The First Amendment —
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.
Now, if you’re one of the idiots that Ezra Klein claims doesn’t understand the Constitution, let me see if I can break down for you the First Amendment.
Congress is not allowed to make any laws that make a national religion, or keeps people from doing their religion. It also can’t keep people from talking about what they want to talk about. It also can’t keep journalists from talking about what they want to talk about. The Government also can’t keep people from gathering together, so long as they don’t hurt anyone or anyone’s stuff. The Government also can’t keep people from getting some kind of compensation for something done to them.
Now, undoubtedly, if you aren’t a product of the American public educational system or have read a book within the past year, you skipped my dumb-downed explanation, because you understood the simple, precise language contained within this text. It’s not a great mystery to you what this amendment, or any of the amendments, are saying.
But, let me point out something further about this first amendment.
Taken as a whole, the thrust of this amendment is toward freedom and liberty, in a sense, establishing the place where public discourse can be held, viz., the public square. In other words, this amendment recognizes that freedom in America can only be enjoyed so long as its citizens are able to speak freely, without fear that the government will persecute dissenters. Now, as to the moral validity of certain kinds of speech, that’s for another article, but this amendment essentially states that everyone is free to say what they want without fear that the government will come after them.
Let’s walk through this amendment and see if we can trace this thought through it.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion… Oh, the culture wars that have been fought over this one phrase! Even now, the ACLU is demanding that a student who prayed during a graduation ceremony apologize and that school officials will take the necessary steps to ensure that “…that graduation exercises are not exploited to present religious messages.” The ACLU claims that the student and the school flouted “…constitutional requirements,” an obvious reference to the First Amendment.
So, does the ACLU have a case? I think so, but only if the First Amendment didn’t balance a negative with a positive.
…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… I would imagine that the ACLU, like many Americans, hasn’t read past that first part, otherwise they would’ve seen something that would have gotten stuck in their collective craw. The First Amendment denies that the government can force anyone to not practicing their religion. It makes no distinction between public and private religious practices. In other words, no where does it say that any religion can’t practice their religion in public. No limitations are expressed here or anywhere else. In fact, considering the other rights afforded by this amendment, it would be incorrect to conclude that the intended freedom does not include a right to the public exercise of religion. If it assumed that this right to the free exercise of one’s religion is merely private, that would open the door for other infringements. For example…
… or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble… Now, we don’t even blink when a member of the media publicly exercises its freedom of speech in the public square. It’s not as if the Press gathers in their homes and freely discusses the news of the day amongst them. No! The Press exercises its right openly and publicly!
Nor do we gather only in our own homes to protest or have meetings away. We exercise our
right to gather peacefully in the open air, where everyone can see us! It only makes sense.
… and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Neither does the First Amendment keep us from exercising this right freely in the public square. We are free to opening and publicly air our grievances out. CourtTV is a perfect example! You can’t get more public than that!
Thus, these are not rights only to be exercised within the privacy of our homes and centers of worship. These are right that we are to exercise freely everywhere.
So, why did the founders lump religion, the Press, and freedom of speech all in the same Amendment? It is because they recognized something dangerous. If a government establishes a religion, then the freedom of its people is threatened. If, however, that same government, drunk with power, attempts to squash the freedom of religious exercise, that government also threatens the general freedom of its people. The same goes for the Press, an assembly, and those who have genuine grievances. Freedom of Speech is an integral part of liberty.
Now, as to the student; this girl wanted to exercise her First Amendment right to freely practice her religion by saying a prayer as a to God, whom she believes helped made her class such a success. She was not attempting to foist religion upon anyone. Rather, she was attempting to honor her classmates and school in the highest regard that a Christian claims is possible; by ascribing the success of her class to divine intervention. This is one of the highest possible compliments that a Christian can give. She exercised her right to bless her fellow classmates.
The First Amendment isn’t about limiting religion, anymore than it’s about limiting the freedom of the Press. Rather, it’s about ensuring the freedom of everyone in America. We are both free from governmental control of what we worship and from the governmental controlling how and when we worship. That’s true freedom.