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Historical Background of the First Amendment's Religion Clauses

Many recall the "separation of church and state" from their school days. But where does that idea come from, and what does it really mean? The First Amendment does two major things: It protects a person's right to practice their religion while also prohibiting the government from establishing a national religion. Over the years, the Supreme Court has interpreted this idea to cover many different things, including laws that favor one religion over another or seem neutral on their face but burden religious practice. 

What The First Amendment Says About Religion

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

History of the Religion Clauses

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

James Madison’s original proposal for a bill of rights provision concerning religion read:

"The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed."1

The language was altered in the House to read: "Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience."2

In the Senate, the section adopted read: "Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion..."3

It was in the conference committee of the two bodies, chaired by Madison, that the present language was written with its somewhat more indefinite respecting phraseology.4 Debate in Congress lends little assistance in interpreting the religion clauses; Madison’s position, as well as that of Jefferson, who influenced him, is fairly clear,5 but the intent, insofar as there was one, of the others in Congress who voted for the language and those in the states who voted to ratify is subject to speculation.

The explication of the religion clauses by scholars in the nineteenth century gave a restrained sense of their meaning. Joseph Story, who thought that the right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons, who believed that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well-being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice,6 looked upon the prohibition simply as an exclusion from the federal government of all power to act upon the subject. The situation of the different states equally proclaimed the policy, as well as the necessity of such an exclusion. In some of the states, Episcopalians constituted the predominant sect; in others Presbyterians; in others, Congregationalists; in others, Quakers; and in others again, there was a close numerical rivalry among contending sects. It was impossible, that there should not arise perpetual strife and perpetual jealousy on the subject of ecclesiastical ascendancy, if the national government were left free to create a religious establishment. The only security was in extirpating the power. But this alone would have been an imperfect security, if it had not been followed up by a declaration of the right of the free exercise of religion, and a prohibition (as we have seen) of all religious tests.

Thus, the whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state governments, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice, and the state constitutions; and the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship.7

Probably, Story also wrote, at the time of the adoption of the constitution and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship.

An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.8 The object, then, of the religion clauses in this view was not to prevent general governmental encouragement of religion, of Christianity, but to prevent religious persecution and to prevent a national establishment.9

Not until the Supreme Court held the religion clauses applicable to the states in the 1940s10 did it have much opportunity to interpret them. But it quickly gave them a broad construction. In Everson v. Board of Education,11 the Court, without dissent on this point, declared that the Establishment Clause forbids not only practices that aid one religion or prefer one religion over another, but also those that aid all religions. With respect to the free exercise clause, it asserted in Wisconsin v. Yoder12 that only those interests of the highest order and those not otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion.

More recent decisions, however, evidence a narrower interpretation of the religion clauses. Indeed, in Employment Division, Oregon Department of Human Resources v. Smith13 the Court abandoned its earlier view and held that the Free Exercise Clause never relieve[s] an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law of general applicability.’ On the establishment clause the Court has not wholly repudiated its previous holdings, but recent decisions have evidenced a greater sympathy for the view that the clause bars preferential governmental promotion of some religions but allows governmental promotion of all religion in general.14 Nonetheless, the Court remains sharply split on how to interpret both clauses.

More on the First Amendment


  1. 1 Annals of Cong. 434 (June 8, 1789).
  2. The committee appointed to consider Madison’s proposals, and on which Madison served, with Vining as chairman, had rewritten the religion section to read: No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed. After some debate during which Madison suggested that the word national might be inserted before the word religion as point[ing] the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent, the House adopted a substitute reading: Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience. 1 Annals of Cong. 729–31 (Aug. 15, 1789). On August 20, on motion of Fisher Ames, the language of the clause as quoted in the text was adopted. Id. at 766. According to Madison’s biographer, [t]here can be little doubt that this was written by Madison. I. Brant, James Madison: Father of the Constitution 1787–1800 at 271 (1950).
  3. This text, taken from the Senate Journal of September 9, 1789, appears in 2 The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History 1153 (B. Schwartz ed., 1971). It was at this point that the religion clauses were joined with the freedom of expression clauses.
  4. 1 Annals of Cong. 913 (Sept. 24, 1789). The Senate concurred the same day. See I. Brant, James Madison: Father of the Constitution 1787–1800 at 271–72 (1950).
  5. During House debate, Madison told his fellow Members that he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any Manner contrary to their conscience. 1 Annals of Cong. 730 (Aug. 15, 1789). That his conception of establishment was quite broad is revealed in his veto as President in 1811 of a bill which in granting land reserved a parcel for a Baptist Church in Salem, Mississippi; the action, explained President Madison, comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’ 8 The Writings of James Madison (G. Hunt, ed.) 132–33 (1904). Madison’s views were no doubt influenced by the fight in the Virginia legislature in 1784-1785 in which he successfully led the opposition to a tax to support teachers of religion in Virginia and in the course of which he drafted his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments setting forth his thoughts. Id. at 183–91; I. Brant, James Madison: The Nationalist 1780–1787 at 343–55 (1948). Acting on the momentum of this effort, Madison secured passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Liberty. Id. at 354; D. Malone, Jefferson the Virginian 274–280 (1948). The theme of the writings of both was that it was wrong to offer public support of any religion in particular or of religion in general.
  6. J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 1865 (1833).
  7. Id. at 1873.
  8. Id. at 1868.
  9. For a late expounding of this view, see T. Cooley, General Principles of Constitutional Law in the United States 224–25 (3d ed. 1898).
  10. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940) (Free Exercise Clause); Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) (Establishment Clause).
  11. Everson v. Board of Education. Establishment Clause jurisprudence since, whatever its twists and turns, maintains this view.
  12. 406 U.S. 205, 215 (1972) .
  13. 494 U.S. 872, 879 (1990) .
  14. See Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203 (1997)Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000); and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002). The fullest critique of the Court’s broad interpretation of the Establishment Clause was given by then-Justice Rehnquist in dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 91 (1985).
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