L. Neil Smith's
Number 284, August 15, 2004

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Survey of the Bill of Rights: Article 1
by Ron Beatty

Exclusive to TLE

As we get closer to the election, I decided it was time to have a short discussion on the articles of the Bill of Rights, which by definition are the supreme law of the land, since they are the glue which brought the new nation together, the definition of the boundaries that government may not pass.

Each week I will discuss one of the amendments of the Bill of Rights. For this first article, I am going to concentrate on the First Amendment

Let's take a quick look at the First Amendment, clause by clause, and then discuss why it was placed first in the Bill of Rights.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion

What does this mean? This is the one clause that there is very little argument about, except among fundamentalists of whatever stripe. Basically, this means that the government can't have an "official" religion. Also, it means that government can not say what a religion is or is not (even though the IRS keeps trying to regulate this.)

or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

This is the clause that everyone seems to forget about when they are arguing about religion and the separation of church and state. The government, with this clause, is forbidden to say when, where, why, or what a religious ceremony is, what a religious action is, or when it can be performed.

Example: Prayer in schools; This is a huge deal, and I don't know why. No, the schools can not decide what prayer to use, but if a moment of silence is sponsored for children and teachers to use as they wish, where is the harm? Those who are religious can pray, those who aren't can meditate, count the ceiling tiles, or whatever they wish. If the school says that all students must say the Lord's Prayer, that is wrong, since it is a state organ pushing a particular religious preference/branch (Christianity). If the school says that a moment of silence is available for silent prayer or meditation, there is no preference espoused, and no violation of the First Amendment.

In like manner, if a government, at whatever level, wishes to have a display to celebrate Yule, Winterset, Hannukah or Christmas, again, there is no problem, provided there is no preference shown to any one particular religion or religious group. If you have only a Nativity scene, this is showing preference to Christianity, and should not be done. But, if you have a variety of tableaux, such as a Nativity, a Menorah, a Yule log/tree, so that those who wish can visit only their own preferred religious scene, with no implied sponsorship, this would seem to be in compliance with the First Amendment. (Note: I understand that there are too many religions to have something from all of them. Perhaps you might even have rotating scenes, with new ones featured each year.)

For the record, I am not a supporter of organized religion, feeling that religion is a matter best left between each person and his god(s or goddesses.)

or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;

This is the part of the First Amendment that is at the center of a great controversy right now. In fact, it is the center of several controversies. The words are very plain, and would seem to be beyond the power of even lawyers or politicians to twist or distort. Unfortunately, our political animals have decided that these words are plain, but don't cover enough, therefore they have used the 'extensions' they've sponsored to limit what should not be limited. By declaring that the safety of the community at large is more important than the rights of the individual, they have twisted the meaning of this amendment beyond recognition.

Does anyone remember the old saying: "I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it?"

In today's world, it is "If you say something hateful, you go to jail for 'hate speech'." Don't get me wrong, no one likes to hear bigoted, racist, hateful speech, unless they themselves are bigots, racists, etc. However, when you limit anyone's right to say what they think or believe, you raise the specter of a state that can limit everyone's opinions and speech.

In today's world, if you criticize a government official or organization, you can be fined, jailed, spied on, and generally put through hell. Doesn't this seem to violate both the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment?

As far as freedom of the press goes, only on the Internet does that still hold true. The large media organizations are controlled by those who have vested interests in certain politicians, political parties, and views. Therefore, only those views are allowed to be expressed in a major way, in those outlets.

or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

This one really gets me angry. Why do you need a permit to have a protest march? Isn't that an abridgement? Why can you only protest political candidates in a designated 'free speech' zone? Isn't all of America a free speech zone? Isn't that what the First Amendment is all about?

Not too long ago, a Second Amendment advocacy site sponsored a petition to repeal the so-called Patriot Act. The only answer to that petition was a form letter from the anti-terrorism office of the Homeland Security Department. Why was a petition for redress of grievance directed to that office? Is free speech now terrorism?

One last comment, then I will close for this week. Under the Campaign Finance Reform Act, it is now forbidden for anyone other than a candidate's campaign to either support or oppose a presidential candidate or any other candidate for that matter by name in print or on the public airwaves. This is a blatant violation of the First Amendment, and I will not comply with it. When I have something to say about a particular candidate, I will say it, and let the chips fall where they may. The only control on what I say in these articles and on this website is my editor, and only he, other than myself, has any control over what I write that is published on this site.


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