Monday, May 11, 2009

Church building lost to presidential veto

So a Baptist congregation built a meeting house in the Mississippi Territory sometime in the early 1800's. At some point it was realized that, due to a surveying error, the church building had accidentally been constructed on federal property. The church apparently petitioned Congress for relief and a bill was passed granting the congregation what was considered an inconsequential five acre parcel.

President James Madison vetoed the bill on February 28, 1811.

Why would Madison, a lifelong friend of Baptists, be so mean to a Baptist church? Because he saw this bill that gave federal land to a church as a violation of the First Amendment. In his veto message to Congress, Madison wrote that this legislative act comprised "a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

While Madison's action might seem pretty unkind, the principle that he defended is crucial to religious freedom. I don't know what happened to the meeting place of that Baptist congregation after Madison's veto. It must have been tough time for the church. I wonder if the members of the congregation took any comfort in the fact that they lost their meeting house for a good cause?

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