Monday, June 29, 2009

What James Madison believed the religious clause accomplished

When James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights in 1789, his wording of the religious clasuse went like this: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or any pretext infringed.” In course of the debate in both the House and the Senate, this wording was modified several times until the final phrasing of the religious clause of the First Amendment was settled upon: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

As Donald L. Drakeman points out, “it is possible to debate interminably over the linguistic difference between Madison’s original proposal and the final version of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.” Whatever may be said about Madison’s view concerning the final wording of the religion clause, Madison biographer Irving Brant maintains that “there is no need to guess” about what Madison believed the phrasing accomplished. One year after Congress approved the Bill of Rights, Madison explained why he excluded an enumeration of those in professional occupations from an amendment to the census bill. He did not think it proper to list religious professionals because “the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who [are] and who are not ministers of the gospel” (emphasis mine) As Brant says, this represented “the broadest conceivable definition of the constitutional guarantee, made publicly … to the same group of men who had approved it … [and] [n]obody challenged his statement.”

In his first inaugural address, Madison promised “to avoid the slightest interference with the rights of conscience, or the functions of religion so wisely exempt from the civil jurisdiction” (emphasis mine). While Madison was president, the plight of a Baptist church in the Mississippi Territory came before congress in 1811. The congregation had accidentally built its meeting place on federal land due to “an error in surveying.” Congress addressed the problem by passing a bill granting what was considered a “trivial” piece of land to the church, but Madison vetoed the bill. He explained in his veto message that “reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of [a] Baptist church comprises 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.’”

In retirement Madison wrote in his “Detached Memoranda” that “the appointment of Chaplains to the Houses of Congress” is unconstitutional because “[t]he constitution of the U.S. forbids anything like an establishment of national religion.” Paying ministers with tax dollars to serve as chaplains involved the principle of a “national establishment.” Furthermore, the appointment of chaplains was “a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles” because the beliefs of the chaplains selected “shut the door of worship [against] the members whose creeds [and] consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority.”

Repeatedly Madison interpreted the language of the First Amendment to provide for the separation of church and state in the strictest terms. This was certainly pleasing to his Baptist allies in the struggle for religious liberty. John Leland, an influential Baptist minister of that day, believed, with his fellow Baptists, that “the religious opinions of men [should not be] the objects of civil government, nor in any way under its control.”

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