Drafts of the First Amendment

A couple weeks ago, in my introductory survey of American religious history, we discussed the creation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which I’m requiring students to memorize. Do you know them?

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

Belief.net has posted the drafts of the First Amendment that were debated in the House and the Senate before the final language was arrived at. It’s intriguing to see what didn’t make it–that is, to see what alternative language some delegates wanted but weren’t able to get enough other delegates to sign onto. To my eyes, this explodes efforts to appeal to “the Founders’ intent,” since the legislative history makes clear that “the Founders” were divided; they were able to arrive at a compromise in the end, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they all understood the negotiated phrasing to mean or imply the same thing.

For example, the House wanted to protect “the rights of conscience,” but the Senate rejected that language. I’m guessing this was because some senators foresaw–and feared–the possibility of protecting the rights of atheists.

Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of Conscience be infringed.

One version considered by the Senate went like this:

Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another.

It’s especially intriguing that this language did not pass, because this is basically what some religious conservatives today maintain was the intended meaning of the establishment clause: it’s not that there’s to be a wall of separation between church and state; it’s not that we have to reject the notion of America as a Christian nation in a general sense; government just isn’t supposed to privilege one particular denomination (i.e., of Christianity) over the others. Some “Founders,” it seems, would have agreed with that position–but not enough of them to pass muster.

Eventually, the Senate agreed on this language:

Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

That’s a more precise, and narrowly defined, version of an anti-establishment clause than what we actually have now, apparently because the House wouldn’t agree to the more precise and narrowly defined language. Instead we got a broader prohibition on Congress passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” I’m curious to know why that language change was necessary–who had what issues?

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One thought on “Drafts of the First Amendment

  1. Steve says:

    Michael Meyerson deals with the debates surrounding the original wording and “intent’ of the Establishment Clause in his recent book — Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America. (Reviewed here: http://www.bookpleasures.com/websitepublisher/articles/5411/1/Endowed-by-Our-Creator-The-Birth-of-Religious-Freedom-in-America-Reviewed-By-Steve-Werlin-of-Bookpleasurescom/Page1.html#.UGiiwJhJLJK.)

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