Constitution Day a good time to revisit First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We hear a lot about the Constitution these days. For example, we hear many Tea Party folks say they want a strict interpretation of the Constitution. We've also heard much discussion of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero and, in that context, about freedom of religion. Friday, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day, a good opportunity to revisit the First Amendment, reproduced in its entirety above.

What is the First Amendment? The first 45 words of the Bill of Rights, ratified in December 1791, protect the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. It serves as the blueprint for freedom of expression and religious liberty.

What is its value? It enables citizens to express their thoughts and beliefs in a free society. It allows citizens to practice whatever religion they wish - or no religion at all. Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government could establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for or against social change.

How does it protect religious liberty? It protects religious liberty through the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. The establishment clause - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" - provides for separation between church and state. The free exercise clause - "or the free exercise thereof" - means individuals can hold whatever beliefs they wish on religion or non-religion and to freely practice those beliefs.

What does the establishment clause mean? That question divides legislators, educators and members of the Supreme Court. It clearly means the government may not establish a national religion. It also means the government may not pass a law that favors one religious sect or group over another. To many, it also means the government may not pass a law that favors religion over non-religion. These individuals believe the establishment clause erects a "wall of separation" between church and state.

What is free exercise of religion? It means people have the right to freely practice their religious faith or practice no religious faith at all. It provides absolute protection for freedom of belief and a strong degree of protection for religious conduct. People can believe whatever they wish. However, sometimes the government can step in and regulate religious practices if it has a strong enough interest - called a compelling government interest - such as the protection of children.

What is the difference between the freedom of assembly and the freedom of association? Freedom of assembly secures the people's right to meet for any purpose connected with government. Freedom of association protects the activities and composition of such meetings. Not explicitly set out in the Constitution, it's derived from fundamental privacy interests and the rights of speech, petition and assembly.

How has freedom of assembly helped society? _Freedom of assembly was the essential freedom in the women's suffrage movement of the 1910s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Protesters - in the face of scorn and arrest - braved the streets and sidewalks to denounce policies and advocate positions in direct opposition to official authorities. Freedom of assembly enables people to gather to make a powerful statement, a statement more potent than any made by a single individual.

For more on the First Amendment, visit

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