A Quick Breakdown of the First Amendment so that Conservatives Might Finally Understand It

bill-of-rightsNot too long ago I wrote a piece where I expressed an opinion that if conservatives had their way, they’d repeal and rewrite our First Amendment.

Why wouldn’t they?  The First Amendment is what keeps them from turning the United States into the theocracy that they so desperately want it to be.

And an argument I hear from many conservatives is that the First Amendment isn’t about freedom of religion, because it doesn’t say that.  Which is true.  It doesn’t say “freedom of religion” in the First Amendment.

But let’s take a look at what it does say:

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.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.  

Though many conservatives seem to believe that the Tenth Amendment (states’ rights) gives them the right to run each Republican controlled state like a theocracy.

Just one slight problem: The states’ rights argument still doesn’t give a state the right to violate any American’s Constitutional rights.

States’ rights allow states like Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, even though it’s still illegal federally, because those laws don’t violate anyone’s Constitutional rights.

It’s why laws banning gay marriage are being overturned.  Those laws do violate the Constitutional rights of Americans.

So while the First Amendment doesn’t literally say “freedom of religion,” it’s impossible for Americans to be free from established religious rule (as per our First Amendment) if states are allowed to pass laws based on religion.

As for the “free exercise thereof,” that clearly pertains to what Americans do in their private lives.  Because how can someone forcibly exercise their religious views on someone who doesn’t share those beliefs, while still allowing the individual on which they’re trying to force their views to enjoy their freedom of (or from) religion?

It’s simple, they can’t.  By forcing someone to adhere to laws based on a religion they do not follow, they immediately violate that person’s First Amendment rights.

Even if a state passes such a law.  Which is why it’s unconstitutional (though states continue to do it anyway) for states to pass laws which violate an American’s Constitutional rights.

This is really not that complicated.  Just follow one simple rule: If even one person who doesn’t subscribe to your religion is forced to follow a law based on your religion, it’s unconstitutional.

Yes, it’s really that simple.

Allen Clifton

Allen Clifton is a native Texan who now lives in the Austin area. He has a degree in Political Science from Sam Houston State University. Allen is a co-founder of Forward Progressives and creator of the popular Right Off A Cliff column and Facebook page. Be sure to follow Allen on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to his channel on YouTube as well.


Facebook comments

  • lindylou

    Will someone please school Scalia, Alito, and Roberts about the Constitution?

    • wolfhounds27

      I’ glad you didn’t mention that mute Thomas. He hasn’t one single clue as to what his job on the court is. He just does what his “Masser” Scalia tells him to do.

      • lindylou

        Actually, I forgot him, clueless or not, he always plumps down on the conservative side no matter the issue. He’s disgusting in every way.

      • John Michael Hutton

        Thomas is a moron but he is smart enough to know that if he doesn’t say anything, no one will have anything to prove that he is a moron.

    • Stephen Barlow

      They knowEXACTLY what they are doing. They are SOVIETIZING America. intentionally destroying the freedoms the Constitution gives by corrupting them.

      I must admit, that the DOJ lawyers don’t sell as compelling a case as some of the most expensive litigators in the country… Why do you think the Tobacco cases were so hard and took so long.

      But I have to tell you, SOMA was a slam dunk, as was hobby Lobby and Heller v DC. Mcintosh(?) was fail if Heller was a YES! to DC government handgun control. So would ALL the SYG cases.

  • Nemisis

    Another step taken towards a theocracy . Wheaton College ruling.

  • Christopher Hall

    It’s too simple for them to understand.

  • The problem i have is that athiests have decided that this means that they do not have to ever see anyone expressing their faith…they shouldn;t have to see a cross, the ten commandments, and never have to hear about them in any place. Have historical and regiligous items in public view is not establsihing a law regarding a religion. I do not believe that there is an implied right of any sort to have ‘freedom from having to see any religion expressed by others”.

    • Bish Chan

      For government to adopt too much religious symbols pretty much is an endorsement of a particular religion or sect. That is exactly what was to be avoided as it could lead to the dominance of one over others and the history is pretty clear of what that leads to.

      • There have always been religious symbols of many sorts in the public square. Too bad there is such intolerance.

      • Bish Chan

        In Europe the intolerance due to religious influence is still ingrained in our history. America seems to have forgotten it.

      • Actually, in Europe the muslims are stealthy in their move to become a majority and wield influence over schools and laws. The muslims said they would do it, and it appears that they are doing so all over the world. Here, children have been told they couldn’t bring bible’s to school, or valentine’s with a bible verse on them. These are not good trends. The difference, it seems, is that in England, when the religiously persecuted left there to come to America, the government had made illegal any church except the church of England. That is a far cry from having a bible verse posted as an inspirational thought, or the ten commandments listed as reminders of moral standards.

      • Bish Chan

        And the minute muslims were caught there is an uproar in the UK at least. We are more less suspicious of christian schools but muslim controlled ones strike fear in us.

        Small stuff like the valentines with bible verses on seems overkill. But it seems common sense left us, or maybe i am showing my age.

        England and Europe struggled with religion and eventually her power was curtailed after long struggles and alot of suffering. America has official separation of church and state and yet religious influence in politics and society is very strong. In the UK we have an official state church, the Queen is the head of the church and there are even seats in government reserved for clergy. But in operation their power is limited to matters which concern them.

        While i accept that it is hard to understand the history of western nations without some knowledge of christianity, the ten commandments outside court houses always puzzled me. Only 3 or so are reflected in law. For others our laws are diametrically opposed.

        In the end if you dislike one sect in England dominating is it not wiser to separate church and state so the state favours none?

      • We can agree that England got it wrong. However..the constitution never does state that there is ‘separation of church and state’…that was in a letter Jefferson, i believe, wrote to a church regarding a specific issue, and not part of our founding documents. It is prohibited by our constituion, and rightly so, that no law should be made that establishes a religion, nor infringes on the free exercise of religion. That is where I think the problem arises…some have interpreted that to mean that there can be no expression of faith by anyone in the public square…or a teacher can’t say they are a christian. Specifically it seems like the rules now are really anti-christian…i’ve seen it in some situations in the schools. From early on a Christmas program was a fun, wonderful thing at school. Now they can’t even have them. They have to change all the songs, not call it a Christmas program, and heaven forbid you mention Jesus. The only exception to that that i’ve seen is my kids’ choir teacher…she stood up and said…i cannot properly teach music without including the history of music…which includes so much from the church (es) that it would be a travesty to leave it out. I do think all common sense is lost.

      • Bish Chan

        While we got it wrong i think it self corrected itself over time. I think it is telling that given how christian society was back then they still did not want a theocracy.

        I don’t have a problem with people being christian or muslim but i guess my limits are when they start affecting the ciriculum ie. people want to teach creationism in the syllabus. I think it is healthy to teach religion in religious education so people can understand something about different religions without promoting them. And also when it is necessary for teaching certain subjects, eg. the history of western music like you say or the development of western society and how religion shaped it.

        I don’t think it is necessary to completely sanitize everything but then our schools were christian and you were exempt from singing hymns or going to church if you wished and it was not overbearing. I might have less tolerable view if it was islam though.

        However, i think the US government should not officially be adopting too many religious symbols as part of official monuments as that is favouring one religion over the other. The government should be neutral in the US as that is most practical given the diversity and polarization.

        The freedom to religious belief is absolute but the freedom to manifest it is not absolute. The latter must be restricted or else rule of law cannot exist.

      • In what cases do you thing the freedom to “manifest’ it should be limited? When someone else doesn’t like it? My daughter went to a college where there was a cross on the hill by the chapel on the campus of the school. It was a private school. There were citizens of jewish belief that didn’t want it on the hill. There was tasteful lighting on it at night. One of the ‘citizens’ was a prominent hollywood personality. Caused a ruckus for the school, just because it seems to be the popular thing to do now, i guess. The school, out of courtesy and following the teachings of what they believe, kindness, etc., turned the lights off at night after midnight. Not because they had to, but because they were trying to be concilitory. Now, if a synagogue had a large star of David visible on a hill, most of us would be just fine with it. I certainly wouldn’t be offended and feel like i would have to take away the rights of the people of that group. Regarding the evolution/creation debate…they are both theories….not provable fact. My children attend public schools…and have had teachers mock their beliefs. A seventh grader being told in front of the class..sarcastically…..’well, YOU must be taking the bible literally…”, and was rather agressive toward her when she stated her opinion. That is very hard for a 7th grader. The teacher only backed down when a bunch of student stood up for her. It is getting to be an issue where the only thing not acceptable is Christianity. I did not do what alot of parents would have done in that situtation and caused a big scene, but it did allow for a good teaching moment with her, but i really don’t appreciate the way it seems that now you have to hide the fact that you are a Christian in some school situtaions. Kids are different…but to face that kind of thing from teachers is not right. We are not in your face Christians…we live what we believe and what Christ teaches as best we can and are concerned about the muslim influences in societies around the world, and find the hostility toward Christianity that is increasing a worrisome thing.

      • Bish Chan

        There’s plenty of stuff in the bible that is plain illegal and violent. Those kind of things are what i’m talking about or when people think they can whip out scripture to disobey laws, discriminate against people or take away people’s rights using scriptural arguments. Pretty early on SCOTUS ruled that religion is a licence to disbey generally applicable laws. So if public policy is based on scripture then that is when i have a problem with that.

        Creation is based on nothing but fairy tales. It cannot be proven nor is it based on evidence. Evolution can be proven and obviously when new evidence comes out which disproves previous theories we revise it (this is what is missing from creation we have to suspend belief). We can observe evolution in the form of natural selection going on everyday around us eg. antibiotic resistance.

        I do understand there are people on both sides who go a bit far though and the US especially seems quite polarized.

      • I agree that public policy based on scripture would be a problem…except when they align. ie., thou shall not murder, steal, etc. I do not believe that in the schools, evolution is taught as you say. I’ve had children in the school systems since 1991..my youngest..born 11 years after the other 2, is 15 and still in school. Plenty of teachers teach that it is settled science. I have a problem with that. Even evolutionists conceed that there are things that don’t add up. Some people believe the bible is a fairy tale, as I did once. However, some of the evidences i have studied, in evolutionary theory and the bible, lead me to believe that it is not. I do wish early scientists had read scripture at some point, just for education sake, they might have learned earlier that the earth was not flat and that there were ‘paths in the sea’. Science didn’t discover that for some time after it was in scripture. The type of evolution you refer to is really ‘adaptation’…which i do believe explains alot of things. To believe that we all originated from a single cell organism of some sort takes way more faith for me to ‘believe’ than intelligent design. Regardless…my beliefs are not the issue…you are correct that the polarization you speak of has changed how people of faith can live out their faith. My daughter had friends who applied to medical school and were told through the interview process that not believing evolution was ‘settled science’ would preclude them from ‘having what it takes’ to be part of their program. How sad.

      • Andy Kinnard

        Evolution is settled science, and I’m glad denying it without scientific reason precludes anyone from being a practicing physician.

    • Eg Kbbs

      OTOH, google Al Bedrosian of Roanoke County who as County Supervisor who limits invocations for his meetings to be from Christians. He is in the news a lot now as he stated that since he doesn’t believe other religions that having “them” pray would constitute religious persecution of himself.

    • Scott Allen

      Nonsense. Almost all atheists distinguish between individual and private expressions of religion and government sponsoring, supporting, or sanctioning of religious doctrines, symbols, practices, rites, or rituals.

      • What about the atheists who protested the homeschool convention in texas? They assert that the creation views taught in some of the curriculum should be monitored, or not allowed. That has nothing to do with the public square and would definitely infringe upon the rights of those parents who choose to home school. It is getting worse. I kind of thing that the athiests of old, who were the type to argue their point in robust disussion, regarding their disbelief, were much better spokesman for the atheist cause than the new breed who seem to pop a bloodvessel over someone singing, O Come All Ye Faithful, or someone bringing a valentine to school with a bible verse in it, or heaven forbid, bring a bible to school to read, or a mom praying on the steps of a school every morning after a shooting happened there (there were no injuries, just shots), or protesting over the WTC memorial that is in the shape of a cross.

      • Andy Kinnard

        I smelleth hyperbole. On the other hand, if there were no contingent issues justifying the home schooling convention protests (that you haven’t mentioned), then that demonstration was ill considered. I’m betting there was more to it.

    • George Romaka

      You seem to be confusing “in public view” with “on public land.”

      There is nothing stopping you from displaying whatever ancient murder weapons you want on your lawn. There is nothing stopping a church from erecting a huge ancient murder weapon on their land with all that tax-free tithing income they get. There is nothing stopping you from walking down the street, listening to your ancient death cult audio handbook, while sporting a gold ancient murder weapon on a chain, another ancient murder weapon on your backpack, and a hat that says “Jesus loves me”.

      All of that is in public view, and within the protected religious freedom of the constitution.

      However, the Ten Commandments are STRICTLY RELIGIOUS. They do not belong in the PUBLIC school that my non-believing kids go to, nor at the PUBLIC courthouse. Neither do nativity scenes or menorahs in winter, nor giant replica ancient murder weapons with S&M headgear in the spring. PUBLIC in this sense, means “paid for by John Q. Taxpayer.” That means that religion is out, because if the GOVERNMENT is in the business of deciding what IS or IS NOT properly religious content, then neither you or I have religious freedom. We would have that chosen for us by our government.

      • Sad for you.

      • Andy Kinnard

        No, sad for you that you cannot accept this argument. It is, literally, the core of religious liberty in the US.

      • Jane Suppen

        LOL, wow @time2bsmart. Heed the advice of your own screename. You are truly a piece of work. Surely you are joking and pretending to be a nonsensical conservative that doesn’t understand the 1st amendment to prove the point of this blog post. But sadly, VERY SADLY, I think you are the real deal. This is perhaps the biggest failing of this country — cutting funds for education and letting the American public become a flock of easily manipulated morons. Sheesh!

      • Again, you seem to have no manners.

      • Jane Suppen

        @time2bsmart. I know it can be tough to get through such a thick skull, BUT if the Ten Commandments were allowed to be placed at the front of the classroom and bible verses on Valentines in public schools, then you would also have to allow Sharia Law to be posted, and to let our kids receive Valentines with quotes from the Quran. How would most conservatives feel about that? Seriously, we should just start doing this and then maybe FINALLY, some of these thick skulled conservatives would understand Freedom of Religion.

      • If a child in a classroom brings a valentine with a bible verse on it, that has nothing to do with the school and I know a teacher who posted quotes from some Indian philosopher types and the ten commandments and some other inspiriational motivational quotes (religiously based..not Christian) and the only one he was told to take down was the ten commandments. He correctly argued that he was inclusive and won the arguement. Probably now, with the athiests out in full force, he would have to take it down. This was 8 or 9 years ago. It is sad. I also find it a sad commentary that you cannot respond to me without name calling being offensive.

  • Mike_Martinez

    They can rewrite the First Amendment, when we can void the Second.

    • TerryInIowa

      I’ll keep ALL of my rights, thank you very much.

      • Mike_Martinez

        Sure, you can keep them all, as long as the straight, rich, white, corporate establishment says you’re worthy enough to have them. Otherwise…. no soup for you

      • lindylou

        Then please understand them, not just the “right” part, but the “responsibility” part as well.

      • TerryInIowa

        I happen to be quite well informed when it comes to rights and responsibilities. I responded to Mike_Martinez who said “They can rewrite the First Amendment, when we can void the Second.” by stating that I’ll keep ALL of my rights. I fail to see how this implied that I would not understand them.

      • lindylou

        Don’t take it personally, it wasn’t about you. I attached my comment incorrectly!

  • Debbie Soares

    Its not that conservatives do not understand the First amendment. They do, but they want it changed. They want to be able to force everyone to be Christian, because supposedly thats what our forefathers wanted……..NOT. Its simple, they believe Obama is Muslim, therefore, we need to be Christian, and he needs to be removed, because he works against Christians. They think the rest of Americans are ignorant enough to fall for their stupidity. (Sad to say there are some)

    • lindylou

      It’s the easy way. Invoke Jesus and let him be your guide in every way, ignore that he really is not whispering in your ear, and if he did he would tell you to lose the attitude.

    • No, we don’t want it changed. We just want tolerance. It seems to be lacking on the side of those who want all public expressions of faith removed.

      • Andy Kinnard

        As soon as you stop conflating “in public” and “on public land”, you arguments will gain a lot more credibility.

  • Guest

    So Allen, concerning the Hobby Lobby decision, was anyone forced to work for that company?

    • Yup

      Oh. Let them quit. Get some assistance while they look for work. Frikking moochers, amirite?

    • Scott Allen

      If people are free to leave their employment, then the employer should be able to determine how the employees use their compensation based on the employer’s religious beliefs? I don’t think so.

      • The plan they offered employees covered 16 methods of birth control, if they want to use the others, all they have to do is pay for it.

    • lindylou

      Facile comment. Now that the ball is rolling, no way to predict where it goes next.

  • Meenieminie

    I have no problem with seeing people express their faith. It’s the shoving it down your throat with unconstitutional laws and basically treating women and minorities like second class citizens that is crap. If we are ever going to come together as a country, we need to stop acting like one is better than the other. Allowing these crazy people to speak for us is ridiculous. And, some atheist may not want to see religious symbols but the fact remains that atheists aren’t making laws regarding their lack of belief so…get over it.

    • Atheists are trying to change established law…see the protests they did in Texas over the home school convetion…they think that homeschooled students should be monitored so not only creation is taught. They protest a memorial at WTC…because it is in the shape of a cross (like it was when they found it), they protest children who bring valentines to school that have a bible verse on them, they protest crosses in the military cemetaries for goodness sake.

      • Terri

        None of those are Constitutional rights. That’s the point. But laws being passed with the support of the religious right *do* force religiously-based practice on others. That’s the point too.

  • Stephen Barlow

    It’s THAT simple.

  • Debbie Soares

    Bottom line, my constitution tells me I can follow any religion I want, and no one should be able to stop me., or force me to change my religion. It tells me, the government CANNO establish any religion (Chirstian or not)

  • Debbie Soares

    Sorry for the typo CANNOT establish a religion. To tell me that I should have my children taught the Bible in public school is forcing me to follow your religion. To tell me that there should be prayer before every public government meeting, is forcing me to follow your religion. This is all against the constitution. These religious fanatics, claiming to be Christians, have not contributed one sensible thing at all. Hobby Lobby, wants to force their religion on women in their companies, that’s unconstitutional, irregardless of SCOTUS/

  • Politician

    Many of us feel the same way about liberals attempts to repeal or reinterpret the 2nd amendment. The second amendment insurers that the others remain in place

  • John Michael Hutton

    Conservatives just aren’t very bright. They like the Constitution until they don’t like the Constitution. They should never be allowed to run anything other than the local PTA, you can’t screw that up because nobody comes to it anyway.

  • abdirahman

    although i like this step but i support not to force the people because they have diff errant belief to fellow

  • Jenny29

    Three days before the First Amendment was enacted, Congress passed a bill authorizing the hiring of a chaplain to open sessions of Congress with Christian prayer.

    Congress also passed a law, signed by President Washington in 1789, which said that religion is necessary to good government (Northwest Ordinance, art. 3).

    Presumably Mr. Clifton believes that the people who wrote the First Amendment didn’t know what it meant.

  • William Bell

    I really like that last part” and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. We all need to exercise this right.!!!!!!!

  • BkDodge42

    First of all it also appears that Liberals want to rewrite the first amendment to satisfy their views also. S.J. Res 19 looks to rewrite the freedom of speech portion of the amendment. This is a direct attack on the First Amendment that Allen seems to be ignoring and trying to deflect attention away from.

  • BkDodge42

    What law is Allen claiming to be written that is being based upon religion? Where does law come from? Is there not laws that prohibit killing people or stealing from one another? Do you want to claim that those laws are based upon any one religion?

  • XaurreauX Pont DeLac

    They know EXACTLY what the Constitution means. They just don’t want to abide by it. They know that if the government doesn’t prop up their religion (and the concomitant hegemony) it will go away.

    Secularism is for grownups.

  • reversalmushroom

    Bill Clinton signed the Defense Of Marriage Act.

  • reversalmushroom

    Liberals are always the ones saying “freedom of expression isn’t freedom from response” to justify their harassment of conservatives, but whenever people get upset at one of them for something they said, they always defend themselves by saying that it’s their constitutional right to say it. Well, which they fuck is it? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. At least conservatives believe in the first amendment rights of everyone, including the people they don’t like, whereas liberals only believe in the first amendment rights of the people who agree with them, and try to bully, get fired, or otherwise punish people who disagree with them. All the people who have gotten someone fired for saying something “offensive” have been liberals, and they don’t even have the strength to stick to that philosophy when it’s applied to them.

  • reversalmushroom

    Marriage isn’t actually mentioned in the constitution, so it’s not unconstitutional to regulate it.