In 1791 the first ten amendments to the constitution of the United States of America were ratified. These amendments became known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was passed with the intent to restrain the power of the government and to preserve the rights of the people by recognizing them. Today it is as important as ever to understand and know these amendments to keep the government in check and to exercise the rights God has granted you.
The first amendment is the foundation that the rest of the Bill of Rights is built upon so it vital to have a firm grasp of this amendment. Because the first amendment is such an important and crucial right it is often under attack and requires the most vigilance to keep it in tact and effective in our society. For this reason, each citizen should take the utmost care to hold the government accountable with this amendment. After all, it was put in writing and ratified to restrain the government not the people.
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.
The first five words of this amendment are often overlooked but are incredibly crucial to understand, “Congress shall make no law”, may seem like legal jargon, but it holds great significance. In the constitution there is only one branch of government that was given the power to make laws and that was the legislative branch (Congress). The legislative branch is the closest representatives of the people therefore, the laws would reflect the values of the people or the people would vote in a new congress.
What does the first amendment specifically restrain congress (and in the process the entire government) from doing? Passing any law that would create a state ran church (respecting an establishment of religion) or any law that would prohibit the free exercise of religion. Many people point to this amendment as the creator of the phrase “separation of church and state” (this phrase would be coined later in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists).
As it comes to religious freedom, we can see there are two parts to it, the first part is the government is restrained from establishing a state wide church. It is important to understand that the amendment is not against a state wide church, it is only against the government establishing one. This means the government cannot tell you what church or religion to be a part of. The second part of religious freedom is interesting as it restrains the government from impeding the exercise of a religion. This means that the government cannot intervene in ecclesiastical law. The government is restrained from telling a church things like when they can meet, how they are to meet, or if they should meet. The religious freedom recognized in the first amendment does not keep religion out of politics, rather it keeps politics out of religion and guarantees the unimpeded exercise of religion even in the realm of politics.
The next area where Congress is specifically restrained is the area of free speech. Congress can make no law that curtails the speech of the citizens. This right is also recognized within the press. Our founding fathers were exceedingly wise when they put this in writing as many tyrants have risen and retained their power by stopping people from speaking and by telling the press what to say to the people. It is imperative for a free nation to spread ideas freely if it desires to maintain its status as free.
Our founding fathers went the extra mile in giving us the road map to freedom by restraining the government when they included “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” to the list of restraints on Congress. The right to peaceably assemble is vital to disseminating ideas and acting upon these ideas. The last part of this amendment is absolutely key for us to understand today. The first amendment restrains the government from stopping its citizens who wish to petition and disagree with the government itself. The establishing government recognized the need to be told they were wrong by the people. This also enabled and placed the responsibility upon the citizens to hold the government accountable for their actions and to be active in politics.
Hopefully this has helped you understand the first amendment of the Bill of Rights and has lit a fire under you to get involved by keeping an eye on our government and petitioning them when they have overstepped their bounds!