As we observe Constitution Day in recognition of the signing of the U.S. Constitution 230 years ago on Sept. 17, 1787, it’s a good time to reflect on the document that established the basis of American laws and government. (The day was officially marked yesterday, but some events will occur today.)
In particular, let’s reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution’s First Amendment that drives the mission of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Given the dismaying results of a recent survey, it sounds like a refresher is in order for many who don’t know what this amendment actually says.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in an August survey found that nearly 40 percent of Americans don’t know what’s included in the First Amendment. Only about half of the respondents could name freedom of speech as one of the rights granted by the First Amendment, and only 15 percent knew freedom of religion also is one of the amendment’s guarantees. Even fewer could name the remaining freedoms granted.
The First Amendment states: “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.”
Constitution Day is a great time to reflect on the religious freedom granted by the First Amendment.
Foes of separation of church and state like to point out that phrase does not literally appear in the First Amendment, or anywhere else in the Constitution. And they’re technically correct: The phrase owes its origin in U.S. governance to forefather and religious freedom champion Thomas Jefferson. In a letter he wrote to Baptists in Danbury, Conn., on Jan. 1, 1802, he described the First Amendment as building “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
The phrase has been adopted as an illustrative metaphor to explain the First Amendment. It has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court, including in the 1878 Reynolds v. United States decision that found the phrase “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.”
So while the phrase “separation of church and state” may not literally appear in the Constitution, to claim it doesn’t reflect the meaning of the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections is disingenuous. Phrases like “religious freedom,” “fair trial” and “innocent until proven guilty” don’t literally appear in the Constitution either – but they are all accepted phrases describing the rights established by the document.
There are several words the Constitution intentionally does not include: “Christian,” “Jesus Christ” or even “God.” And the word “religion” (and its variants) only appears twice – in the First Amendment as described above, and in Article VI, which confirms “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That means elected and appointed government officials don’t have to prove they practice a particular faith – or any faith at all – to be eligible for public office.
Clearly, the Constitution was intended as a secular document to protect the religious freedom outlined in its First Amendment. But that doesn’t stop some in the Religious Right from continuing to spread the myth that America is a “Christian nation.” This past Independence Day, Hobby Lobby, the crafting chain store with evangelical owners, again placed an ad in major newspapers implying the “Christian nation” fiction. AU’s Communications Director Rob Boston debunked the ad’s claims on this blog, as did several AU members in opinion columns in their local papers. Nonetheless, it was disheartening to learn in a recent religion survey conducted by Baylor University that more than a quarter of respondents said the U.S. is a Christian nation.
So on this Constitution Day, I hope you’ll join me in spreading the word about what the Constitution says, especially the First Amendment. And maybe take a few minutes to read and share this classic pamphlet published by AU that debunks the “Christian nation” myth. As President Donald Trump and his far-right fundamentalist base continue their machinations to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state, we’ll need your help in the fight to protect true religious freedom in America. I hope you’ll join us.