2012 First Amendment Essay

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Would democracy collapse upon itself, with the people first setting up a government and then watching helplessly as it moved ponderously to crush the very rights governments are designed to secure? There, the citizens have learned to organize themselves not `vertically’ under an aristocratic class but `horizontally’ with civil associations: political parties, churches, clubs, societies—all of them with sufficient strength to push back against unwarranted governmental encroachments.

Tocqueville reported that Americans had perfected “the art of association” to the highest degree of any people, employing this art peacefully to defend their liberties against their own governments, when necessary.

This essay is adapted from The Heritage Guide to the Constitution for a series providing constitutional guidance for lawmakers.

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

But what good would my worship, my speaking, and my writing be—beyond those who happen to worship with me, or hear me speak, or read my writings (small numbers all!

)—if I and my fellow citizens had no right to get ourselves organized, to get the attention of our elected representatives, to life? During the virulent civil wars of England, fought over intractable issues of religious conviction, what sensible king would not view such gatherings with fear and suspicion?The boundaries of free exercise, like those of other rights, must be delineated as against the claims of society and of other individuals.The history of the Free Exercise of Religion Clause, in both its original understanding and modern interpretations, reveals two recurring impulses, one giving free exercise a broad scope, the other a narrow scope.Still further, as another Member observed, “under a democracy, whose great end is to form a code of laws congenial to the public sentiment, the popular opinion ought to be collected and attended to.” We not only need to think; once our thoughts have been refined and augmented by the thoughts of others, we then need to get the attention of those who can do something about the things upon which we have resolved.The Congressmen knew that writing a letter to one’s Congressman will likely have far less effect than a petition signed by dozens—the product of a public assembly of citizens.(Amendment I) Establishing freedom of religion as both constitutional principle and social reality is among America’s greatest contributions to the world.Nevertheless, the concept of free exercise of religion is not self-defining.Do they not circulate freely on the streets of cities? Just and moderate governments are everywhere quiet, everywhere, safe; but oppression raises ferments and makes men struggle to cast off an uneasy and tyrannical yoke.” Thomas Jefferson knew his Locke.In the summer of 1774 he addressed his fellow citizens on General Gage’s proclamation in Massachusetts, “declaring a Treason for the Inhabitants of that Province to assemble themselves to consider of their Grievances and form Associations for their common Conduct on the Occasion.” Gage was Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s army in America; his “odious and illegal proclamation must be considered as a plain and full Declaration that this despotick Viceroy will be bound by no Law, nor regard the constitutional Rights of his Majesty’s Subjects, whenever they interfere with the Plan he has formed for oppressing the good People of the Massachusetts Bay.” When Jefferson and his colleagues in the Continental Congress met two years later to issue their own proclamation—for independence and against tyranny—they never forgot that the right to assemble peaceably gives a people the way to carry their thoughts and speeches into civic action. Free worship means that I may listen to the most important things, the first principles that govern my life, without fear of persecution. Guest Constitutional Scholar Essayists, Constitutional Amendment I, Constitutional Amendment I, William Morrisey Ph D The Right to Effective Citizenship Free worship; free speech; freedom to publish; and the rights of the people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government: we cherish our First Amendment freedoms but we may not see how intimately they support one another, how much they need each other.


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