Religious Freedom

James Madison, known as the “Father of our Constitution” met with a Baptist preacher named John Leland under a tree at the corner of what in now Madison and Leland Avenues in Richmond. They were to run for office against each other. However, Leland, a five to one favorite, didn’t want to run.

In that meeting Leland persuaded Madison an amendment to the Constitution was needed that would provide religious freedom and give every denomination equal footing. People had fled Europe because of various state churches. England had the Church of England, German the Lutheran Church, Spain and Italy the Catholic Church. These were funded by the state to the exclusion of other denominations.

There was strong growing sentiment in America for there to be no official denomination. Madison agreed to propose such an amendment and Leland withdrew. Thus, the First Amendment came to be to guarantee all denominations freedom. It is a prohibition on the government not the church.

Read it: “Congress shall make no laws….”

In Banberry, Connecticut a group of Baptist wrote Thomas Jefferson about their concerns related to there being no official denomination established by the government. Jefferson had no part in drafting our Constitution and wasn’t even at the convention. He was a respected public figure. In Jefferson’s response he assured the group there would be no official denomination because there was a great wall separating church and state. A reading of his full letter makes it apparent what he meant. He was assuring them there would be no official state church. That is, no one denomination would be the official denomination.

The “wall” isn’t mentioned in the Constitution. The First Amendment was intended to assure the people all denominations would be treated equal and was intended restrict government not the church.

That is the way law was interpreted until 1947 when Justice Black in effect made a new law on behalf of the court by applying the statement to virtually exclude the church from public life. For over 150 years the intent of the restriction being on government was understood. Only recently did courts reverse the intent. For years the issue was a one way street restricting government. Then courts reversed the traffic and made it a one way street going the other way and restricting the church.

This is one of the principle reasons some persons don’t want judges appointed who believe in the “laws of nature and natures God.” The expression referred to laws revealed through nature and the latter to the laws of God revealed through Scripture.

Constitutional law is based on the intent of those who established our Constitution. In modern times as evolution gained popularity the thought of evolving law emerged in the Harvard Law School. A move away from interpreting law based on the content and intent of the Constitution began to emerge based on what is known as a “living Constitution” or “dynamic Constitution.” Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes espousing this position said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.”

Our forefathers wanted to let freedom ring —- religious freedom.