Hail to the 1st

With the many references made to the 1st Amendment, I thought that maybe a refresher course was due on this topic. The Bill of Rights (as the first ten amendments are collectively referred to, were introduced to the Congress by James Madison in 1789 and formally adopted in 1791.

The 1st amendment reads. in toto:
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.

I’ve casually mentioned the first amendment in my posts, but I’ve never gone into the reasoning of it. More often than not I refer to the first 2 pieces which read:
1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion
2. or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Even though they are actually one phrase grammatically, they are two separate concepts. At first glance it would seem that the two pieces of the phrase are stating the same thing in different ways, but it is clearly not the case. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” points to the Church of England being the official religion of England. It basically says that we were not going to make the mistake of saying that any one religion has precedence over any other religion according to the United States Government.

When the Pilgrims came here, in 1620, they were escaping religious intolerance from that church. The first two pieces directly relate to that persecution. The framers of the Bill of Rights were trying to be both inclusive and exclusive of religious freedoms when the 1st was written. Of course they conveniently ignored the fact that those self-same pilgrims were trying people for witchcraft 70 years after they arrived on the shores of Massachusetts.

So, no matter what the right-wing evangelicals say, Christianity (or mono-theism which is in my mind the encapsulating concept of the Judeo-Christian nature of religion here) is not the official religion of this country. We have all heard the views of Franklin and Jefferson on the separation of church and state so I will not belabor that point. However, in the interest of that point, I should note that the phrase “In God We Trust” did not appear on US coins until 1864 and on paper currency until 1957.

The second piece, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, is where it gets really sticky. It is why I blogged that I was torn on the issue of the HHS ruling on birth control coverage. I will concede this point in the favor of HHS, and will say that it is also due to input by others. It is true that the institutions referred to employ more than just Christians or Catholics (to be more specific) so that denying them this coverage is denying them on the basis of the religion which employs them rather than on their own religion.

What it basically says is, while there is no official religion, the government cannot establish laws restricting the practice of any religion.  Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the reason that all churches receive tax-free status. In actuality, this was due to a series of Supreme Court decisions from 1861 to 1877, that declared that churches were charitable institutions.

Of course, this is not even close to being true now; today’s mega-churches are evidence of that. In my humble opinion, churches should be required to submit income tax deductions only on those pieces which can be attributed directly attributed to charitable work such as food banks. The rest of their income should be taxed at the normal corporate rate (this does not mean GE’s current rate…). But this is also something which would now, because of those SCOTUS decisions, require a constitutional amendment. And in today’s environment, that would be impossible.

If we look closely at this piece, an interpretation of it would mean that any restrictions which we make on churches should only apply to the separation of church and state as defined by the first piece. We can restrict them according to laws which apply to all, such as the Civil Rights Act or open employment (EEO), but we need to watch anything that would restrict practices of worship.

Any restrictions on worship itself, could be equally applied to us as Pagans. This is where I see the too often used cliche` “slippery slope” to be entirely pertinent. And I believe this is what Madison was referring to in crafting that wording. As much as I complain about the religious right it is the opinions they push which I abhor, and the influence they have over many politicians, not the way in which they worship.

I am sometimes overcome with my own version of hyperbole on religion, and I need to be more responsible and precise in my wording. This is not to preserve the interest of being politically correct, but to be honest and non-hypocritical in the expressions of my opinions. As Pagans we all should think carefully on our own expressions for that reason. If we are to be respected for our own beliefs, we need to respect the beliefs of others. This is not to say that we cannot point out the inconsistencies, but we need to be prepared to face criticism on those points as well.

I will be examining the rest of the 1st in the next post.

An interesting side note: In regard to the Pilgrims there are no references to Plymouth Rock until 100 years after the landing ( http://www.pilgrimhall.org/Rock.htm )


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