The First Amendment to the Constitution: A Closer Look
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution is one of the foundations of our democratic nation. More people know about the freedoms listed in the first amendment than those in any other part of the Constitution. Providing for the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly, the first amendment is frequently cited in all kinds of disputes, from the right of student newspapers to print what they like to the right of citizens to peaceably protest acts of the government.
The freedoms given to us in the first amendment make the United States the country that it is.
During the Constitutional Convention, the ratification of the Constitution as written was in doubt. The Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution primarily on the grounds that it did not include a Bill of Rights. They were worried that unless the rights of the people were specifically spelled out in the document, that the government could later declare that those rights did not exist.
The Federalists felt that a Bill of Rights was not necessary, stating their belief that the Constitution itself prohibited the government from doing anything not written in the document; since the Constitution did not say that the government could take away the freedoms of the people, then the government could not do this.
Ultimately, the Anti-Federalists won the Bill of Rights battle, and the first ten amendments to the Constitution were created to fulfill their desire. It is no accident that the first of these ten amendments is the one that provides the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly. To the Founding Fathers, these were the hallmarks of a free society. In England, these freedoms were supported in theory, but could be quashed by the King at will, and often arbitrarily. People could be thrown into jail or worse for such things as criticizing the King or worshipping a religion that was not officially recognized by the Crown. Newspapers could be censored and assembly for the purpose of protest was not allowed. The Founding Fathers felt that these freedoms were almost inherent in human nature, and that they must be protected in an enlightened society. Therefore, these four freedoms became the crowning jewel of the Bill of Rights.
While the first amendment freedoms have remained near and dear to our hearts as Americans, they have not been without controversy or challenge. There have been many Supreme Court battles in the ensuing two centuries since the Bill of Rights was written regarding the proper application and extent of these freedoms in this country. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these controversies is the debate over prayer in school. This debate falls under “freedom of religion.” Those who support it believe that it is our inherent right to pray in school and that this right is protected by the first amendment. Those who oppose it believe that the first amendment creates a separation of church and state that does not allow religious activity such as prayer to mingle in a public setting like a school.
The Supreme Court has thus far sided mainly with those who oppose prayer in school. An example of this is in the 2000 case of Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Jane Doe. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that a student-led prayer at a high school football game violated the separation of church and state. Supporters of student-led prayer argued that as long as the prayer was initiated and controlled by the students at their own request and not a school requirement led by teachers or administrators, then it did not violate separation of church and state. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying that even if students voted to have the prayers, that there would still be a minority of students who did not want the prayer and that the rights of these students were protected by the freedom of religion clause in the first amendment.
The Supreme Court did not decide this case correctly. The first amendment does not ever mention a separation of church and state. Instead, it simply states that Congress shall make no law establishing a religion and shall not interfere in the practice of religion among citizens. This means that the United States is not supposed to create a national religion (like the Anglican church in England) and is supposed to allow everyone to practice their own religion as they see fit. By allowing student-led prayer in school, particularly prayer that has been democratically voted on by students (who then also choose who they want to lead the prayer), the students are infringing on no one’s practice of religion. As long as no one is required to participate in the prayer, no one is being coerced into accepting a religion and no one’s freedom of religion is being abused. Those who choose not to participate, including atheists, may say that they feel ostracized or otherwise uncomfortable by not participating, but as long as no one physically or mentally forces them to pray, there is no Constitutional problem. By prohibiting student-led prayer, the Supreme Court is effectively infringing on the free expression of religion of the students who voted to have the prayer, and this is an unconstitutional act on the part of the Court.
The Founding Fathers were concerned with the United States being overrun by the “tyranny of the majority.” However, in prohibiting student-led prayer, the Supreme Court is allowing a “tyranny of the minority.” A better solution would be to allow any sort of religious activity in schools and public forums as long as those who attend the schools or frequent the forums had a vote in whether or not the prayer would be permitted and what sort of religion the prayer would represent. Then, anyone who chose not to participate would be free to abstain. As long as no one was prohibited from attending an event because they would not participate in the prayer, there would be no Constitutional reason to not allow prayer in a public forum or school.
Chebium, Raju. (2000). Supreme Court Says Student-Led Prayer at High School Football Games Violates First Amendment. CNN.com. <http://archives.cnn.com/2000/
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