Teaching With Documents, Volume 2

Contents:

The Wording of the First Amendment Religion Clauses

Although Virginia and Rhode Island guaranteed religious freedom in their state constitutions, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 included a bill of rights guaranteeing religious freedom in the territories, the Constitutional Convention did not adopt a statement concerning religious freedom. The only time the subject of religion specifically arises in the Constitution is in Article VI. In setting qualifications for federal office, the delegates determined that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States." The omission of a bill of rights guaranteeing religious freedom and other civil liberties nearly prevented ratification of the Constitution.

To remedy this shortcoming, James Madison, borrowing heavily from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted a bill of rights, which included a clause on religious freedom, for consideration by the first U.S. Congress. In Madison’s original proposal, submitted to the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, the religion clauses were worded as follows:

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 pretext infringed.

Madison’s proposals, along with amendments suggested by the states, were considered by a select committee of the House, composed of one member from each of the 11 states. On July 28,

the committee reported Madison’s text in a shortened version as follows:

No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.

During the debate in the House, several Congressmen expressed fear that the language might be interpreted to mean that religion should be abolished altogether. The wording as eventually passed by the House on August 24 read

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

Written as Article 3, this proposed amendment and 16 additional amendments were sent to the Senate the following day.

When the Senate finally took up the subject of the amendments on September 2, the record shows that three alternative wordings were debated in the chamber. Motions were also made and rejected to strike the article completely and to adopt the article as it was worded by the House. In a strong editing session, the Senate slashed wordiness freely, fusing articles and reducing the 17 amendments passed by the House to 12. Articles 3 and 4 were combined to read

Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of thepress, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition to the government for the redress of grievances.


Click the image to view a larger version


Click the image to view a larger version

The revised articles were sent back to the House on September 9 for concurrence. A conference committee, appointed to settle the differences between the two houses, changed the disputed phrase "establishing articles of faith" to "an establishment of religion," and on September 25 both houses approved the 12 amendments as presented by the joint conference. The final wording, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," was ratified by the states as the First Amendment.

This document is taken from the Journal of Proceedings of the U.S. Senate, First Session, First Congress, which was printed in 1820 by Gales and Seaton in Washington, DC, and was based on the original minutes of the clerk of the Senate. The journal is found in the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, in the National Archives and Records Administration.

TEACHING ACTIVITIES

Document Analysis

1. Ask students to read the document closely and answer the following questions: a. What type of document is this? b. When was it created? c. Who created it? d. Why was it created? e. What is recorded in the document about the proposed Constitutional amendments? f. Why do you think the First Amendment is referred to as the third article in this document? What do you think happened to the document prior to this recorded debate? h. What do you think happened to it next?

2. Discuss the students’ responses, and drawing from the note to the teacher, share additional information about the document.

Writing the First Amendment

3. Direct students’ attention to the section beginning "On motion to amend article third..." Ask students to write the First Amendment as it would have been worded if any of the three alternative wordings had been adopted. Write on the chalkboard additional wordings considered by the Congress that are mentioned in the historical background. Discuss what the reasons may have been for rejection of the alternative wordings and the pros and cons of the various wordings. Who in the Congress might have supported each of the wordings? Ask for a show of hands for the wording that the students favor.

Background of the Government and Religious Freedom

4. Ask students to review the Northwest Ordinance; the Virginia Declaration of Rights; the Constitution, Article VI, Section 3, and the First and 14th Amendments, and trace the history of the religion clauses in these documents. Assign students to further research, and present to the class ideas about the government’s role vis-a-vis religion expressed by John Locke, Sir Henry Vane the Younger, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Isaac Backus, Thomas Paine, George Mason, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, William Penn, John Adams, and George Washington. Discuss the similarities and differences between each person’s opinion and the position of the present administration as to the role of government and religion.

Contents:

Download Options


Title: Teaching With Documents, Volume 2

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options


Title: Teaching With Documents, Volume 2

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "The Wording of the First Amendment Religion Clauses," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 10–11. Original Sources, accessed October 19, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RS2T772JYRWHV2H.

MLA: . "The Wording of the First Amendment Religion Clauses." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 10–11. Original Sources. 19 Oct. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RS2T772JYRWHV2H.

Harvard: , 'The Wording of the First Amendment Religion Clauses' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.10–11. Original Sources, retrieved 19 October 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RS2T772JYRWHV2H.