What does the 1st Amendment say and mean?


The whole controversy swirls around some basic terms and phrases that have been a part of the history and heritage of the governing of the United States since the beginning.

There are those who believe the words that make up those terms and phrases are open to much interpretation. I am not one of them. I believe that our forefathers chose their words carefully in order to convey their thoughts in the most direct way their use of language at the time allowed.

Words have meanings. See your favorite dictionary for them. Placed together in phrases and sentences, the words convey a thought based on those meanings. As I write this, I am trying to choose the words I feel will best describe to you my thoughts. Just as my thoughts are not ambiguous or open to interpretation in my own mind, I don't want them to be in yours. I wish to convey that thought that is in my mind to you through words that have meaning as described in the dictionary, placed together in phrases and sentences so that you can fully understand my thoughts without confusion. There is no doubt in my mind that any other writers, including our forefathers, have the same purpose as they write, especially in matters of great importance, which certainly the Constitution and Bill of Rights are.

Notwithstanding that basic observation of writing in order to convey thoughts, as I've read the writings, both public and private, of our forefathers, citizens and leaders throughout the history of the United States, I've found myself questioning exactly what it is they were trying to convey, especially in the earliest period of our history. Their style of writing and speaking two centuries ago was more eloquent, poetic, and still had much of the proper English and Latin carried over from Europe to the new world. While it was direct to them in their day, it may read as somewhat antiquated to us. It does not quite convey meaning directly to us in the way that we would convey it today, with our present use of language. Nonetheless, they were trying to convey a thought, and that thought has not changed, even if our everyday language to convey a thought has.

Therein lies the basis for the argument by many that these words, phrases and sentences written by our forefathers are open to interpretation. I disagree. I believe there is only one correct interpretation and meaning, that of the person who wrote it. Any other interpretation assigned to a piece of writing is nothing more than a spin placed on it to convey the reader's thoughts and views, rather than the writer's.

It is for that reason that, when confronted with a piece of writing by one of our forefathers that seems somewhat less than direct to me because of the writing style of their day, I use two sources primarily to discern their thoughts, rather than arbitrarily assign my own to my own liking. Those two sources are: 1. The dictionary, in which all words have a common meaning to me as they did the original writers. 2. The other writings of the original author, in order to understand more fully their thoughts on particular issues, that I might understand their thoughts behind the writing I am examining.

Of our forefathers, most wrote little or nothing about the events of the day and their thoughts regarding those events. What little they may have written is lost, gone and inaccessible to us. We cannot know their thoughts beyond their votes, when recorded, or if the vote was unanimous and we can ascertain that they were present at the time of the vote. They did their civic duty, voted their conscience and otherwise remained virtually silent in the history of American documentation. We, as Americans, do not readily call their names to mind as we recall our heritage. Say "forefathers" and their names do not spring to mind in most Americans. Say their names and most Americans have never heard of them.

A few however, wrote incessantly on every matter it seems, and are well documented and preserved. They are the names we are familiar with. Names like Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Adams.

Of those writings, one of the most important for this discussion is the LAW, as defined in the 1st Amendment, which says, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Those ten simple words have caused more controversy over the last 50 years than possibly any other single phrase in American history. Who wrote it and what does it mean?

Who wrote it? James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, wrote it. Specifically, he headed the six man Congressional committee assigned the task of hammering out the specific wording to be used in the Bill of Rights that would best guard the right of religious freedom for the citizens of the United States (among other things).

There are two schools of thought on the interpretation of this famous phrase. The one held by Dubya, Ashcroft, Rehnquist, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Rush Limbaugh is that it means Congress should make no law which establishes one religious denomination over another. These names have all, every one, made it clear that they have a personal agenda to infuse their personal Christian religious beliefs into our civic government by any means accessible to them, legal or popular.

The opposing view (the one I hold to) is that it means Congress shall make no law that would impose religion in any form upon the citizens of the United States. As described earlier, I chose the word "impose" intentionally to convey my thought. Per the dictionary:

1. To establish or apply as compulsory; levy: impose a tax.
2. To apply or make prevail by or as if by authority: impose a peace settlement. See Synonyms at dictate.
3. To obtrude or force (oneself, for example) on another or others.
4. Printing. To arrange (type or plates) on an imposing stone. (Ten Commandments, anyone? ~Buck)
5. To offer or circulate fraudulently; pass off: imposed a fraud on consumers

As to the actual phrase itself, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion" I will use the two sources defined earlier in an attempt to make my case that the only correct interpretation is that of the writer himself (Madison) and those that agreed with him and his mind on this matter and voted it into LAW, rather than the readers who would "interpret" it to their own views (some of whom desire to impose their personal religious beliefs onto the citizenry by force of law by our government).

First, some common sense and the dictionary, in which we can all find a common reference to the words themselves. What do they mean?

Congress: Common sense. We know who this is. This is the body of men and women we elect to represent us in the Federal Government that propose new laws in the form of Bills. Our elected representatives.

shall make no law: Common sense again. That's pretty easy to understand as well. No law means no law - Not any, not one, none. There's nothing ambiguous about that. So now we have, Our elected representatives will not make any law (about something). About what?

respecting: With respect to. In respect of. Regarding. Simple. Regarding something. Regarding what? Now we have, Our elected representatives will not make any law regarding (something). Not only something in particular, but even something in respect to (that something). What is that something?

an establishment of: This is not a reference to a place, like a bar or a restaurant you might call an establishment. It is not a reference to a building, not even a church building. It is the condition or fact of being established. In this case, by law. So now we have, Our elected representatives will not make any law regarding (something) that will establish (that something) by law. What is that something?

religion: Notice it does not say church. It does not say a religion. It does not say a particular religion. It does not say one religion over others. It is a single word: Religion. What is religion? Here it is: Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader. It is all-inclusive.

So now we have, Our elected representatives will not make any law regarding belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe or a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader, that will establish belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe or a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader by law.

That's the meaning as defined by the words themselves. The meaning behind those words has not changed between the time Madison wrote them and now. They were intentionally put together in a certain way to convey a certain thought. There is evidence of this in that other proposals to the specific wording were put forth during the committee's discourse and rejected for not conveying the correct ideal on the matter of how best to ensure the basic right of FREEDOM to ALL citizens to think about and practice religion in any way they saw fit, according to their own consciences and without coercion, especially from the government, as long as it did not violate other basic human rights (no human sacrifices, for example).

The other proposed phrases were:

(1.) "Congress shall make no law establishing one Religious Sect or Society in preference to others, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed."

(2.) "Congress shall not make any law, infringing the rights of conscience or establishing any Religious Sect or Society"

(3.) "Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed."

Any one of those, had it been adopted by Madison, the rest of the committee and Congress, would have made the revisionists' case that this is simply in reference to one particular religion over others. But they were all rejected as unfit to convey the true intent of real religious freedom for ALL that they aspired to attain by LAW. They would have given us mere religious tolerance, not true freedom.

Madison's other writings convey tons of information on his views regarding religion, government and the relationships between the two. Let us examine some of his writings for clues as to his thoughts on the matter and subsequently, his intent in the wording of the 1st Amendment.

Before Madison was in the United States Congress he was in the Virginia Legislature where he was already making a name for himself by working hard towards the separation of government from religion. Later in his life, in a letter to General LaFayette in November of 1826, Madison recalls the events that led up to and after his writing of "Memorial and Remonstrance" thus:

"The Anglican hierarchy existing in Virginia prior to the Revolution was abolished by an early act of the Independent Legislature. In the year 1785, a bill was introduced under the auspices of Mr. Henry, imposing a general tax for the support of "Teachers of the Christian Religion." It made a progress, threatening a majority in its favor. As an expedient to defeat it, we proposed that it should be postponed to another session, and printed in the meantime for public consideration. Such an appeal in a case so important and so unforeseen could not be resisted. With a view to arouse the people, it was thought proper that a memorial should be drawn up, the task being assigned to me, to be printed and circulated throughout the State for a general signature. The experiment succeeded. The memorial was so extensively signed by the various religious sects, including a considerable portion of the old hierarchy, that the projected innovation was crushed, and under the influence of the popular sentiment thus called forth, the well-known Bill prepared by Mr. Jefferson, for "Establishing Religious freedom," passed into a law, as it now stands in our code of statutes."

First, a little perspective. The events he describes from 1785 precede the U.S. Constitution by 2 years. Religious freedom was not yet a legal right, as there was no U.S. Bill of Rights yet. Some states still had laws that allowed punishments like a hot poker through the tongue for blasphemy, the requirement of being a Christian in order to be recognized as a full citizen, etc. Madison, along with Jefferson and others, knew this was something that needed to be addressed. They also knew that they had to appeal to the very Christians (of all denominations) they wished to keep from causing such laws through majority rule, which was about to happen as described in his letter to LaFayette. One therefore sees in "Memorial and Remonstrance" an appeal made as though coming from a Christian himself. Other private writings would later reveal that Madison was actually quite antagonistic toward the religion of Christianity but, mindful of his audience and his agenda, the politician did the best he could to convey a thought and argument necessitating the complete separation of civil government from religious thought and coercion.

I suggest you read all of "Memorial and Remonstrance" yourself to get the full idea, but will give you a taste of his thoughts on the matter at hand. Keep in mind that he wrote, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" and consider what you think he meant by it, considering what you are about to read. Also, think about how you believe he would have reacted to the proposal of a LAW enacted by the government to include allegiance to a mono-theistic God, as rendered in the Pledge of Allegiance, in opposition to multiple gods or no god. Consider whether Madison would have thought it proper for the government to endorse a particular religious view as the Pledge does. (You might also consider how he would react to governmental "faith-based" programs and school voucher schemes to get public tax monies into the coffers of religious entities, but that's another topic - albeit related.)

Selections from "Memorial and Remonstrance" by James Madison:

"We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled "A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion," and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it, and to declare the reasons by which we are determined."

Notice in particular the words, "a dangerous abuse of power". Madison spends the rest of the document outlining exactly WHY this is dangerous and why it is an abuse of power. He will tell us in a powerful series of statements something that goes to the very heart of his ideals in the separation of government law and action from religious thought and exercise.


"1. Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, "that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society."

Madison clearly recognizes that, though the law would not force anyone to believe or worship in any particular way, it STILL violates the rights of free conscience by establishing a religious tie with the government.  He recognizes that the civil authority has no business encroaching in any way upon the right for each citizen to have any religious beliefs they deem appropriate; That the matter is entirely personal.


"We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance."

Madison says here that religion is not recognized by acknowledgment, recognition, or jurisdiction (the legal definition of cognizance) by the Civil Society (government). Keep in mind what "religion" is.



"True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority."

Madison now tells us that if majority rules in favor of a law that establishes a connection between the government and religion, the rights of the minority for religious freedom will be trespassed. They will lose their "unalienable right" to their true freedom of conscience and religion.


"The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves."

For some odd reason, every time I read this passage a picture of Dubya pops into my head...


"3. Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it."

This is one of my personal favorites. The dissenting opinion in the 9th Circuit Court says, "...the danger that 'under God' in our Pledge of Allegiance will tend to bring about a theocracy or suppress somebody's beliefs is so minuscule as to be de minimis." That is tantamount to saying, "it's only a LITTLE violation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, no BIG deal, so it's ok." But Madison tells us, "it is PROPER to take ALARM at the first experiment on our liberties."  Not only that, but it is "the first duty of citizens" to do so.  Mr. Newdow is a true American for taking a stand in defense of our "unalienable rights" to free conscience and freedom of religion, even IF that stand is unpopular to the majority, in order to defend the freedom of ALL, including the minority.


"Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?"

Now we're getting to the heart of our particular discussion. Is Madison only worried about one particular sect or denomination, or is he worried about any intrusion of religion into government at all, knowing full well what it could, and probably will, eventually lead to? Would Madison support the idea of the government endorsing one god over many gods or no god at all, in opposition of the free right of conscience for ALL citizens as an "unalienable right"? Isn't it obvious that the answer to these questions is a resounding "NO WAY"?

Here also, Madison pulls out one of his trump cards; He relies on and appeals to the fact that Christians of all but perhaps the sect with the most members at the time will reject the passing of this legislation in fear that the majority sect will eventually rule by LAW, rendering their own religious faith, rituals and right of conscience unlawful. Smooooooth...

Continue to keep in mind that the points Madison is addressing are NOT part of the Bill he is remonstrating directly against, but what he sees down the road through the door it would open. A door he absolutely does not want opened. Ever.


"4. Because the Bill violates the equality which ought to be the basis of every law, and which is more indispensable, in proportion as the validity or expediency of any law is more liable to be impeached. If "all men are by nature equally free and independent," all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an "equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience."

Equality ought to be the basis of every law. Is that beautiful or what? Further, he recognizes that this must include, "EQUAL title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience."

1. Having the same quantity, measure, or value as another.
2. Mathematics. Being the same or identical to in value.
a. Having the same privileges, status, or rights: equal before the law.
b. Being the same for all members of a group: gave every player an equal chance to win.
a. Having the requisite qualities, such as strength or ability, for a task or situation: "Elizabeth found herself quite equal to the scene" (Jane Austen).
b. Adequate in extent, amount, or degree.
5. Impartial; just; equitable.
6. Tranquil; equable.
7. Showing or having no variance in proportion, structure, or appearance.

Nothing ambiguous about that, is there? How can the government take ANY position on religion, other than NONE, and still remain EQUAL? I consider it impossible and, from Madison's writings, I believe he felt the same way. If the government recognizes "God" it then fails to equally recognize "GodS" (plural) and "no god(s)", both of which are also the rights of free conscience and freedom of religion. It thus oversteps it's authority onto the "unalienable rights" of it's citizens. Does he really mean to include the godless in this scheme of equal protection under the LAW and the "unalienable right" to free conscience and religion? Let's find out:


"Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered."

Yes, he means equality for ALL citizens to the RIGHT of free conscience in matters of religion, free FROM government opinions in the matter. Further, he pulls out another trump card, declaring it to be an offence against God. Now, which Christian will vote for something that is "against God"?


"5. Because the Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."

Judge Moore and his courtroom 10 Commandments, anyone?


"It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits."

Benjamin Franklin actually stated this idea more succinctly (IMHO) in his words, "When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."


"7. Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."

Sounds "dangerous" to me too, Mr. Madison. No wonder you don't want it to be a part of your government.


"8. Because the establishment in question is not necessary for the support of Civil Government. If it be urged as necessary for the support of Civil Government only as it is a means of supporting Religion, and it be not necessary for the latter purpose, it cannot be necessary for the former. If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government?"

Is it necessary to have religion as part of government? Does it help govern in any way? Madison clearly says no. He goes on then to describe what it DOES do when a part of government:


"What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not."

What did he say? "In NO INSTANCES have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people." He speaks of tyranny, the ruin of civil authority and subversion of the public liberty in governments that have allowed religion to play a role. Does anyone think he wants this?


"9. Because the proposed establishment is a departure from the generous policy, which, offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our country, and an accession to the number of its citizens. What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution."

Notice the word "establishment" here? He will use it a short time later in writing the 1st Amendment. He calls this proposed establishment or a religious endorsement by an act of LAW a "signal of persecution", even thought the bill itself does not state to persecute or exclude other religions or anything like it. Madison sees the door it opens, and hastens to shut it tight against the oppressive forces it can unleash. Moreover, he has stated that it has been unleashing these tyrannical persecutions for 15 centuries, yielding in no cases guardians of the liberties of the people.


"It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority."

He recognizes that though it doesn't denounce others' religious views outright, by espousing a particular religious view the legislative authority has degraded the equal rank of the rest of it's citizens, something atheists have been saying about every incursion thus far. As an atheist, I feel it. I live it. Such small violations to MY "unalienable rights" of free conscience to believe however I want about religious matters have degraded my equal rank as a citizen of our great country. If you don't believe me, ask any Christian. How about George Bush Sr.? What did he have to say about it? Let me tell you. In 1988, while vice-president, Bush said, "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God." Madison saw it coming over 200 years ago and wrote the 1st Amendment to try to protect me. Is it working?


"Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance. The magnanimous sufferer under this cruel scourge in foreign Regions, must view the Bill as a Beacon on our Coast, warning him to seek some other haven, where liberty and philanthropy in their due extent, may offer a more certain repose from his Troubles."

As Christians shake their fists and scream at me to move to another country if I want to be an atheist, I know that Madison was right. As they proclaim this is a Christian country founded by and for Christians, I see the terror in Madison's eyes 200 years ago. As the revisionists re-write American history and "interpret" the 1st Amendment to their own ends, in order to allow religion into my government (in small doses - no big deal), I reflect on Madison's ability to see 200 years and beyond, into the future, and his passion at trying to keep it from happening.


"11. Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease."

He bears witness to the fact that in Europe governments tried to solve religious differences by deciding which one was right. The result was, as he put it, "torrents of blood." The true remedy, according to Madison, is for the government to have no opinion in the matter; To support nor deny any. It is enough to hold them all equally to the laws which are necessary for the good of the whole citizenry. The policy that there is one God is a narrow religious policy. It chooses one religion over others, contrary to Madison's views of true religious freedom and rights of conscience for all citizens.


"At least let warning be taken at the first fruits of the threatened innovation. The very appearance of the Bill has transformed "that Christian forbearance, love and charity," which of late mutually prevailed, into animosities and jealousies, which may not soon be appeased. What mischiefs may not be dreaded, should this enemy to the public quiet be armed with the force of a law?"

Soon he would write the words in the 1st Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". He meant what he wrote. No law means NO LAW. Religion means religion. What "mishiefs" may not be dreaded if we get LAWS that endorse religious views? Who is the "enemy to the public quiet" in his statement above? What does he NOT want to happen?

These are the thoughts of the author of the 1st Amendment. These are from one document of hundreds that he wrote which have been preserved wherein he has stated his views in no uncertain terms. He was not alone. His voice and pen were that of the great majority of that period in history. The others knew full well his views and employed his skills of word and pen to express their collective idea of how to make this Nation one of true freedom, not just of mere tolerance that must eventually lead to discord.

Now then, how shall we "interpret" the 1st Amendment? How about the way it was intended by the author and those that signed it into LAW in order to preserve true freedom, not mere tolerance? You don't have to be a mind reader to figure out his intent with it. He spelled it out for us all. All we have to do is READ IT.

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