You’ve probably seen it. Anyone who has spent time perusing the comment sections of online articles has seen the sparring matches between secularists and theocrats. Recent SCOTUS decisions have likely inspired such discussions, no doubt. Typically, the theocrat is left battered and bruised by the weight of history and facts, and yet, the theocrat still somehow leaves unconvinced…
…and claiming victory. (smh)
If one engages with a theocrat and takes the time to debunk enough of their claims, eventually, they will get into ambiguous territory like what was the “Real” intent of the founders. It was after one such discussion that I decided to do some research of my own into the official record.
WARNING: The following is low on opinion and high on the official record …with links galore.
Most Americans (I hope) know that there are three religious clauses in the Constitution, the ‘no religious test’ clause, and the ‘establishment’ and ‘free exercise’ clauses that comprise the First Amendment. So let’s dive right in and investigate the, ‘no religious test’ clause.
James Madison’s notes are the most comprehensive record that we have of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
August 6, after two months of debates, the report from the Committee of Detail delivered 23 articles to the convention, one of which is Article XX and it reads:
“The members of the Legislatures, and the Executive and Judicial officers of the United States, and of the several States, shall be bound by oath to support this Constitution.”
August 20, Mr. Charles Pinckney submits 12 proposals to the convention, included is the ‘no religious test’ clause, the proposals are referred to the Committee of Detail and doesn’t come back around until the 30th.
August 30, Article XX was taken up and “or affirmation” was added after “oath.” The following is directly from the text:
Mr. Pinkney moved to add to the art: -”but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the U. States”
Mr. Sherman thought it unnecessary, the prevailing liberality being a sufficient security agst. such tests.
Mr. Govr Morris & Genl. Pinkney approved the motion. The motion was agreed to nem: con: and then then whole Article; N. C. only no-& Md. divided
(nem: con: = Nemine contradicente, with no one dissenting; unanimously)
That’s it! Seriously! That was the extent of the discussion regarding the ‘no religious test’ clause, and not even a single delegate voted against it.
(“…the prevailing liberality…” I love it;)
Moving on to the Bill of Rights debates of the 1st Congress 1st Session as archived at the Library of Congress.
August 15, they begin to debate the fourth proposition, “no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”
Mr. Sylvester had some doubts of the propriety of the mode of expression used in this paragraph. He apprehended that it was liable to a construction different from what had been made by committee. He feared it might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.
Mr. Vining suggested the propriety of transposing the two members of the sentence.
Mr. Gerry said it would read better if it was, that no religious doctrine shall be established by law.
Mr. Sherman thought the amendment altogether unnecessary, inasmuch as Congress had no authority whatever delegated by them by the Constitution to make religious establishments; he would, therefore, move to have it struck out.
Mr. Carroll.- as the rights of conscience are, in their nature, of peculiar delicacy, and will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand; and as many sects have concurred in opinion that they are not well secured under the present constitution, he said he was much in favor of adopting the words. He thought it would tend more towards conciliating the minds of the people to the Government than almost any other amendment he had heard proposed. He would not contend with the gentlemen about the phraseology, his object was to secure the substance in such a manner as to satisfy the wishes of the honest part of the community.
Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience. Whether the words are necessary or not, he did not mean to say, but they had been required by some State Conventions, who seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause of the constitution, which gave power to Congress to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the constitution, and the laws made under it, enabled them to make laws of such a nature as might infringe in the rights of conscience, and establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended, and he thought it as well expressed as the nature of the language would admit.
Mr. Huntington said that he feared, with the gentlemen first up on this subject, that the words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion. He understood the amendment to mean what had been expressed by the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Madison); but others might find it convenient to put another construction upon it. The ministers of their congregations to the Eastward were maintained by the contributions of those who belonged to their society; the expense of building meeting-houses was contributed in the same manner. These things were regulated by by-laws. If an action was brought before a Federal Court on any of these cases, the person who had neglected to perform his engagements could not be compelled to do it; for a support of ministers, or a building of places of worship might be construed into religious establishment. By the charter of Rhode Island, no religion could be established by law; he could give a history of the effects of such a regulation; indeed the people were now enjoying the blessed fruits of it. He hoped, therefore, the amendment would be made in such a way as to secure the rights of conscience, and a free exercise of the rights of religion, but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all.
(I would like to interject some additional information for context and a dash of personal opinion. When Mr. Huntington says, “By the charter of Rhode Island, no religion could be established by law; he could give a history of the effects of such a regulation; indeed the people were now enjoying the blessed fruits of it.” This statement is actually a sarcastic dig at no religious establishment. At the time, Rhode Island was often referred to as ‘Rogues Island’ because the state was used as a haven by smugglers and other nefarious characters; also, the merchants of Rhode Island were major players in the slave trade. I did find it humorous that Mr. Huntington goes on to say that he wished to secure those rights, ”but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all” after having just patronized the hell out of them; for some reason that seemed familiar.)
(This is pure speculation on my part, but I envision a very subtle eye roll before Mr. Madison begins.)
Mr. Madison thought if the word national was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of the honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.
Mr. Livermore was not satisfied with that amendment; but he did not wish them to dwell long on the subject. He thought it would be better if it was altered, and made to read in this manner, that Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.
Mr. Gerry did not like the term national, proposed by the gentleman from Virginia, and he hoped it would not be adopted by the House. It brought to his mind some observations that had taken place in the conventions at the time they were considering the present Constitution. It had been insisted upon by those who were called antifederalists, that this form of Government consolidated the Union; the honorable gentleman’s motion shows that he considers it in the same light. Those who were called antifederalists at that time complained that they had injustice done them by the title, because they were in favor of a Federal Government, and the others were in favor of a national one; the federalists were for ratifying the constitution as it stood, and the others not until amendments were made. Their names then ought not to have been distinguished by federalists and antifederalists, but rats and antirats.
Mr. Madison withdrew his motion, but observed that the words, “no national religion shall be established by law,” did not imply that the government was a national one.
The question was then taken on Mr. Livermore’s motion, and passed in the affirmative 31-20.
August 17, the committee then proceeded to the fifth proposition: “no State shall infringe the equal rights of conscience, nor the freedom of speech or of the press, nor of the right of trial by jury in criminal cases.”
Mr. Tucker. – This is offered, I presume, as an amendment to the constitution of the United States, but it goes only to the alteration of the constitutions of particular States. It will be much better, I apprehend, to leave the State Governments to themselves, and not to interfere with them more than we already do; and that is thought by many to be rather too much. I therefore move, sir, to strike out these words.
Mr. Madison conceived this to be the most valuable amendment in the whole list. If there was any reason to restrain the Government of the United States from infringing upon these essential rights, it was equally necessary that they should be secured against the State Governments. He thought that if they provided against the one, it was as necessary to provide against the other, and was satisfied that it would be equally grateful to the people.
Mr. Livermore had no great objection to the sentiment, but he thought it not well expressed. He wished to make it an affirmative proposition; “the equal rights of conscience, the freedom of speech or of the press and the right of trial by jury in criminal cases, shall not be infringed by any State.”
This transposition being agreed to, and Mr. Tucker’s motion being rejected, the clause was adopted.
August 20, on motion of Mr. Ames, the fourth amendment was altered to read, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience,” this being adopted.
August 24, the proposed amendments are referred to the Senate. It’s interesting to note that on the 23rd, Mr. Tucker proposed an amendment to the ‘no religious test’ clause by inserting the word ‘other’ between the words ‘no’ and ‘religious’ It passed in the negative (i.e. it failed)
Now, on to the Senate; unfortunately, there is no record of the Senate debate because the Senate met in secret at the time and did not open its doors to the public until 1795, however, it did keep a journal of all the motions.
August 25, the Senate receives the proposed amendments from the House of Representatives and on motion to postpone the consideration of the articles to the next session of Congress. It passed in the negative.
Ordered, That Monday next be assigned to take them under consideration.
Art. III. “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.”
Art. IV. “The freedom of speech, and of the press, and the right of the people to peaceably assemble and consult for their common good, and to apply to the government for redress of grievances, shall not be infringed.”
These two articles will eventually be merged and become the First Amendment.
September 3, the Senate begins debating Art. III.
On motion to amend article third, and to strike out these words: ‘religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ and insert ‘one religious sect or society in preference to others:’
It passed in the negative.
On motion for reconsideration:
It passed in the affirmative.
On motion that article the third be stricken out:
It passed in the negative.
On motion to adopt the following, in lieu of the third article: ‘Congress shall not make any law infringing the rights of conscience, or establishing any religious sect or society:’
It passed in the negative.
On motion to amend the third article, to read thus: ‘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:’
It passed in the negative.
On the question upon the third article as it came from the House of Representatives:
It passed in the negative.
On motion to adopt the third article proposed in the resolve of the House of Representatives, amended by striking out these words, ‘nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed:’
It passed in the affirmative.
September 4, the fourth article is amended to read as follows, “That Congress shall make no law, abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances:” It passed in the affirmative.
September 7, on motion to add the following to the proposed amendments to wit, “That the third section of the sixth article of the constitution of the United States, ought to be amended, by inserting the word ‘other’ between the words ‘no’ and ‘religious’. It passed in the negative.
September 9, on motion to amend article the third, to read as follows: “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 the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition to the government for the redress of grievances:”
It passed in the affirmative. (Articles III and IV, have now merged)
The Senate finished with the amendments and sent it back to the House of Representatives.
September 21, the House then resumed the consideration of the amendments proposed by the Senate to the several articles of the amendments to the Constitution of the United States; some of which they agreed to, and disagreed to others, two-thirds of the members present concurring in each vote; whereupon, a Committee of Conference was desired with the Senate, on the subject matter of the amendments disagreed to; and Madison, Sherman, and Vining were appointed managers on the part of the House. The Senate receives the message from the House of Representatives and due concur in a conference on the subject matter of disagreement on the said articles of amendment, and that Ellsworth, Carroll, and Paterson, be managers of the conference on the part of the Senate.
September 23, the House of Representatives proceeded to consider the report of a Committee of Conference, on the subject matter of the amendments depending between the two Houses to the several articles of amendment to the Constitution of the United States, as proposed by this House: whereupon, it was resolved, that they recede from their disagreement to all the amendments: provided that the two articles, which, by the amendments of the Senate, are now proposed to be inserted as the third and eighth articles, shall be amended as follows:
Art. 3. 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.
On the question that the House agree to the alteration, in the manner aforesaid, the yeas and nays were called, and are as follow: 37-14.
On motion, it was resolved, that the President of the United States be requested to transmit to the Executives of the several States which have ratified the Constitution, ‘copies of the amendments proposed by Congress, to be added thereto, and like copies to the Executives of the States of Rhode Island and North Carolina.
The Senate received a message from the House informing the Senate, that the House of Representatives had receded from their disagreement to the amendments, insisted on by the Senate: provided that the “two articles, which, by the amendments of the Senate, are now proposed to be inserted as the third and eighth articles,” shall be amended as followeth: …
September 25, Resolved. That the Senate do concur in the amendments proposed by the House of Representatives to the amendments of the Senate.
Well, there you have it, the transcript of the official record while the religious clauses had the floor. I hope everyone enjoyed this little stroll through history and I will end this piece with one of my favorite quotes by Thomas Jefferson. This is an excerpt from the final letter Mr. Jefferson wrote before his death, declining invitation to the Washington D.C. 4th of July celebration of the 50th anniversary of American Independence, dated June 24, 1826:
“I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”