Freedom of Religion – Episode 3 (concise)

Freedom of Religion in the United States – Episode 3 (concise)

This is the story of Freedom of Religion in the United States and its subsequent assault and attempt at subjugation by the concept of “Separation of Church and State”

The fundamental right of Religious Freedom and the imposition of the concept of the Separation of Church and State are embroiled in a constant struggle.  The latter concept as it was and is invoked in the conduct of our lives and in our societal affairs is a misrepresentation, a lie, that spread throughout the nation before the truth got its boots on, and is now regarded by most as a factual truth. Paradoxically, neither the term, nor the concept of “Separation of Church and State” appears in the U.S. Constitution.  Yet, the overreaching, misguided and zealous invoking of the concept of Separation of Church and State as if it is the law of the land in our Constitution has effectively served to diminish the actual free exercise of religion specifically provided for in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Background – We left off in Episode 2 with the U.S. Constitution being ratified by 9 states in September of 1788.  The business of implementing the newly formed government got underway, and by March 1789 the President had been elected and the First Congress was in session.  There were a great many things to be done by that Congress.  But high on the priority list for one delegate, James Madison, was the passage of amendments to the Constitution that would guarantee the rights of the people. Madison worked tirelessly to get a suite of 12 amendments guaranteeing our personal rights passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Indeed, they were passed on Sept. 25, 1789 just 4 days before the Congress adjourned. The efforts by Madison represented great dedication and commitment to the people of the United States.  James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, did not consider the statement of these rights as a necessity in the Constitution since powers not specifically assigned to the Federal Government were to remain with the people and the States. But during ratification of the Constitution several of the Colonies insisted as a condition of their acceptance that the new Government take steps to ensure these personal rights.  Madison took it upon himself to see that they were added to the Constitution. Ten of the twelve amendments were ratified and are known as The Bill of Rights.  (Interestingly, one of the 12 not ratified at the time, called for salaries of Congress to not be able to be changed till the next session. It was ratified 202 years later, in 1992, and became the Twenty Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.

As an interesting aside, it is noted that the term “religion” as used in the first amendment was almost certainly not referring to the worldwide religions, e.g. Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, as we now commonly use the term, rather it was used in reference to different Christian denominations (Congregationalist, Quaker, Anglican, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, etc.).  These were the “religions” which people were familiar with in their world where approximately 99.5 % of the Colonists were Christian. This understanding by the founding fathers was attested to in 1800 later in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush when he affirmed that the first amendment “establishment” clause related to preventing selection of a particular Christian sect”.

The first two clauses of the First Amendment are the ones that guarantee Freedom of Religion.  “Congress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion (clause 1), or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (clause 2),

The intent of the First Amendment religious freedom clauses

Review of American history before the Bill of Rights was written clearly shows the intent of Madison in formulating and Congress in adopting these two First Amendment clauses was that:

(1) the newly formed Federal Government would not establish a “state” religion and

(2) that laws could not be made by the Federal Government that restricted people from practicing their chosen religion.

These two clauses were inter-related, as both were intended to remove the “built in religious preferences in the founding of the colonies and resulting religious discrimination which the framers recognized and had witnessed.  These statements assured the populous that the Federal Government would not be involved in promoting religious preference or in restricting an individual’s religious observance.  That is why a Freedom of Religion” right was needed in the first amendment.

The Establishment ClauseCongress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion — One could imagine the outrage and total unacceptability of the new Constitution if the Congregationalists in New England were told that the Anglican Church was to be the “state” church of the new nation.  Or if the Anglicans in South Carolina were told that the new nation’s official church was to be Congregationalist.  The simply stated “establishment clause” assured the states and their people that the new Federal Government would not be allowed to establish a particular “Christian denomination” as the church of nation.  This was the intended purpose of the clause and its only purpose.

It is important to recognize that the intent of this clause is simple, clear, and single focused.   In future years the intent of this clause will be grossly exaggerated and expanded to imply that any public display or expression of religion is prohibited.  It is also important to recognize, that some individual states at this time (1789) still had an official “state” church (denomination) and in fact continued with one for many more years.  This was consistent with the Constitution’s limits on the Federal Government and the delegates’ desire to maintain “States Rights”.  This situation further makes the case that in the implementation of the first amendment, advocacy, public display and public expression of religion in these states was not considered to be in violation of the establishment clause and was not suppressed.

“Free Exercise of Religion” Clause – Whereas the first right guaranteed by the first amendment (“establishment” clause) was primarily directed toward states as a whole (honoring the status of religion of the majority of the people therein), the second clause dealt directly with an individual’s rights with respect to the Federal Government. This clause ensured protection of individuals and religious sects against any laws being made by the Federal Government that would prohibit the free exercise of their religion.

However, this clause pertained only to the Federal Government so discrimination could still occur within individual states.  Never the less, declaring and documenting the principle to the right to “free exercise of their religion” was important to the Baptists, the Moravians, the Quakers, the Catholics, the Presbyterians and many other Christian denominations who had immigrated to this country.  These other Christian denominations had been discriminated against by law and by common convention in those colonies where an “official” church was recognized (New England) or where one had been established by a “Crown” Charter.

It is instructive and important to reiterate that the religious freedom clauses of the first amendment pertained only to a restriction on the “Federal Government” established by the Constitution.  Thus, a state (such as Massachusetts, or North Carolina) could and still did have an “official” church denomination representing their state. The Bill of Rights did not directly apply to state and local governance.  But, the spirit and intent of establishing “the free exercise of religion” in the U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights set the example for individual states and local governments as well as for individual Americans to follow.  In general, individual states came to honor the free exercise of religion and did not enact laws that prohibited the free exercise thereof.  Likewise, with the growth and expansion of the United States acceptance and tolerance of other religious denominations and later other religions became the American norm.  However, individual morality and decency cannot be legislated and as will be discussed later (non-governmental) religious discrimination, bias, and intolerance by individuals and groups existed at the time the constitution was written and continues today.

The relatively simple rationale (basis, purpose and intent) for the inclusion of two clauses on religious freedom explained above is quite clear.   What is also very clear is that the First Amendment clauses related to religion did not restrict or put any limitations on religious expression on individuals or organizations (churches, schools, local communities, state and local governments, etc.) the only restrictions invoked were on the Federal Government.   These Federal Government restrictions were the “wall” that Jefferson would refer to and be twisted.

We can clearly see that there was no intent in the freedom of religion clauses in the Bill of Rights for the government to be devoid or separated from religion (Christianity), far from it.  That there was such an intent is the essence of the misunderstanding or “myth” of separation.

The “Free Exercise of Religion” and the “Myth of Separation”

 We are ready to examine the illegitimacy and irrationality of the imposition of the “separation of church and state” concept in applying the “establishment clause”.  This “myth” was planted  in 1947 and has been growing since.  That myth is that: “The founding fathers considered and dictated in the Constitution that there should be “Separation of Church and State”.   This belief, currently accepted, taught and invoked is demonstrably false.  The term was erroneously “made up” and ascribed as the meaning and intent of the First Amendment. The concept has been used to invalidate and undermine the original intent and meaning of the First Amendment.  The words of this phrase, which are ascribed to President Thomas Jefferson, were not Jefferson’s words but were, along with their erroneous interpretation, “made up” based on a100+ year old letter written by Jefferson.

With respect to the term “separation of church and state” it is noted that:

  • The writings of the founding fathers endorse the linkage, the value and the necessity of religion within our government and thus belie the much later “imposed” judgment that the church should be excluded from the State. The first amendment is unidirectional – it was and is only intended to exclude the government from establishing a state church and from interference of the free exercise of religion.
  • The concept of “separation of church and state”, was not brought up during the drafting and debates on the first amendment wording.
  • The concept / phrase “separation of church and state” was not used by Jefferson or by any founding father, rather that term was derived (after 150 years had passed) from a “literary” figure of speech used in a private letter supporting the first amendment’s objective of restricting government from interference with religious practice.       Further such a source (private letter) regardless of the belated interpretation of meaning or intent does not have the force of law or of a judicial finding.
  • The term is never mentioned or used in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
  • The term “separation of church and state” was not used in any statements or rulings by the judiciary in the 100 plus years subsequent to the adoption of the first amendment.

Information and discussion on each of these points and on the erroneous introduction, deliberate misuse and overzealous application of this phrase and on its resultant effect of eradicating the intent of the first amendment will be presented in the ensuing episodes.  This Episode 3 will discuss the first two bullet points above.  The latter 3 will be covered in Episode 4.

It will be abundantly clear from this examination that linking the “establishment clause” to “removal” (separation) of religion from all the normal, commonplace activities in our civil society is ludicrous.  Making that connection was an opportunistic and intentional distortion that imposed the will and ideology of a few influential people on the nation’s populous. Once introduced it was exacerbated by an activist judiciary such that the intent of the first amendment free exercise clause has been turned around 180 degrees.  The establishment clause, interpreted to mean, “separation of church and state”, (i.e. removal of any semblance of religion from anything to do with civil society), resulted in seriously tearing down the intent and viability of the free exercise clause, which was clearly the desire of the founders.

  • The linkage of religion and morality to America’s founding and to the sustainability of the government, as expressed in writing and as practiced by the founding fathers.


The founding fathers, including, but not limited to, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Franklin recognized, and documented their belief that our nation’s founding was ordained by God and that the successful survival of this new “governmental concept of a democratic republic,– of the people, by the people and for the people”,  depended on the people of the nation maintaining faith in God and on sustaining the high moral standards rendered in the Judeo-Christian traditions and imbedded in the laws of our country.  A few of the statements on the linkage of God to our freedom and to the success of our government and country are given below:  There are many more that could be cited:

“It is impossible to govern rightly the World without God and the Bible” George Washington

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”  …  “The worship of God is a duty…Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature… I never doubted the existence of the Deity, that he made the world, and governed it by His Providence…The pleasures of this world are rather from God’s goodness than our own merit… Whoever shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of primitive (essential) Christianity will change the face of the world… Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  – Benjamin Franklin

Both George Washington (an Episcopal vestryman) and John Adams offered strong rhetorical support for religion. In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington called religion, as the source of morality, “a necessary spring of popular government,” and an indispensable support to political prosperity .   Adams claimed that statesmen “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”

Jefferson noted…….”A free people claim their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” , “[It is] God who gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a Gift of God?”

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind of self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” James Madison (1751-1836) Father of the Constitution, 4th President of the United States

The founding fathers believed and oft stated that if the people governed did not maintain high morals and strong virtue based on faith in God that the Government they instituted would not succeed.

After 4 or 5 weeks at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin appealed to the convention’s President, (George Washington), for prayers to God be offered at the outset of each session.  He noted that daily prayers were offered to God at the outset of the conflict with Great Britain and that if it were not for them {the prayers}we would not have prevailed.  Franklin wondered if they {the convention’s delegates} had forgotten that powerful friend (God).     The last two paragraphs of Franklin’s speech are given below:

I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build, they labor in vain that build it.” {Psalm 127} I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.”

The Second Continental Congress (1774) started the practice of prayer before each session.  The First Congress under the Constitution (1789) continued the practice of a prayer by a chaplain before each session and that practice carries on to this day.

It is evident from the representative statements of the founders given above, that separation of God (religion) from the government was not even a thought much less an objective in the formation of our governmental system, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights.  It was not even a consideration in their discussions.   Just the opposite was the case.  The founders credited God not Kings or governments with giving us our natural rights, our freedoms and our chance to form a more perfect union.   What they did not want was the government interfering with an individual’s religious observances.  It is unmistakable that the intent of the first amendment was to ensure that the Federal Government did not interfere with the observance of religion by the governed, not that religion should be removed from anything that the government was involved with or from the lives of the governed.

  • The term “separation of church and state” was not brought up during the drafting and debates on the first amendment wording.


The amendments to be made to the Constitution to ensure individual rights and thus fulfill the promises made relative to its successful ratification, were initially drafted by James Madison for consideration by the first Congress.  Madison’s draft was discussed and debated in committee, debated by both houses of congress, written in final form and finally passed and then sent for ratification by the states.   Note below information refuting the idea that “separation” of church from state was the intent of the first amendment “establishment” clause:

The Congressional Record from June 7 to September 25, 1789, documents the months of discussions and debates of the ninety members of congress (Founding Fathers) who deliberated on the proper wording of the First Amendment.  During those debates and discussions there was never a mention by anyone of those ninety “Framers” of the phrase “separation of church and state.” It seems logical that if this concept had been the intent or even a consideration of the intent for the First Amendment religious clauses then someone among the ninety who framed the Amendment would have raised that concept and used that phrase; none did. 

This evidence concurs with and supports the discussion above on the rationale for and the intent of the “establishment clause”.  This statement was very simple, straightforward and clear.  It was based on the understanding of how religion was established in the colonies and the problem being addressed was the experience of and potential for Government control and interference with religion and not the reverse!  The reverse (removing religion from government) would have been antithetical because a religious belief and/or a respect for God was an integral part of the founding fathers lives, and to suggest that those beliefs and understandings should be separated from the formulation of a government of the people, for the people, and by the people would not have been conceivable.  And this evidence from the Congressional record again shows that it was not.

In Episode 4 we will see further evidence of the fallaciousness and falsehood that is inherent in the invoking of the concept of the separation of church and state as the intent of the establishment clause.  Then we will see how such an interpretation was not invoked for the first 150 years after the First Amendment was written.

Please join me for Episode 4.  Thanks, Larry Von Thun


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