So, there’s this thing called the First Amendment tacked onto the Constitution of the United States of America. It goes as follows:
It’s a good amendment. In fact, it’s so good it shouldn’t even be an amendment. It should be part of the original document, but nobody’s perfect. At least it was the first thing our founding fathers thought to add to the Constitution in 1791. Good on them.
That being said, I don’t think it’s quite specific enough. Here we are, more than 200 years later, still debating the exact meaning of some of the words in it. The First Amendment says “Congress” shall make no “law”, but it doesn’t say a thing about the President using his discretionary fund to unconstitutionally give away our tax dollars to certain lucky religious groups, not even all religious groups, like W started with the Faith-Based Initiatives and Obama kept in play when he was elected.
According to The Supreme Court interpretation of that sentence in the First Amendment in their ruling on Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, using public tax dollars to support churches actually isn’t unconstitutional since the taxpayer money is from the Presidential discretionary fund and it isn’t a law put in place by Congress. I’ve already discussed my contempt for Faith-Based Initiatives in the post One Law I’d Abolish, so I’ll just quote myself. “According to that logic, if you’re President of the United States, you could hire hit men to kill anyone you choose with your discretionary fund and The Supreme Court can’t touch you. Unconstitutional or not, you could start your own war or decide to kill all babies born on Tuesday with taxpayer dollars, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But, Faith-Based Initiatives is not a law per se. If it was, it would be easier to fight it.”
Using the Presidential discretionary fund made of taxpayer dollars to give money to religious groups goes against the spirit of the Constitution, where taxpayer dollars are supposed to go towards all taxpayer needs, but not against the letter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court seems confused by the “Congress shall make no law” part.
“Respecting” is also an odd word choice. Respecting religion could mean anything from endorsing or propagating, to just giving a polite greeting and tip of the hat to religion. It could mean that you admire religion or that you agree to abide by it. The same thing goes for “establishment”. Establishment can be a brick and mortar building, or the act of founding something. A McDonald’s restaurant is an establishment and some could argue that it’s a religion.
That first part of the sentence could mean: “Congress shall make no law where people are required to tip their hats under penalty of death when they pass a church or any other kind of building, but the President or the Senate can give away taxpayer money if they want to without any sort of law at all.” The First Amendment doesn’t say a thing about not financially supporting them either. The rest of the First Amendment is pretty self-explanatory and can really only be taken one way. It’s interesting that the founding fathers would only use ambiguous wording on the part of the First Amendment about religion.
That being said, I propose that we amend the First Amendment a little bit. Instead of saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” we should make the wording unequivocal in its meaning like the rest of the amendment. Granted, I’m not a lawyer nor am I up on my legalese, but here’s what I propose:
“The government of the United States of America shall not endorse, propagate or even acknowledge a religion, god, or lack thereof. Citizens of the United States have the rights to both freedom of and freedom from religion. The government cannot financially support nor otherwise endorse any religion or god over any other, or lack thereof. Public officials of the government shall not be required nor allowed to divulge their religious beliefs in order to seek a public office or to work in a public capacity of any kind. All religions will be administered solely by the public without government financial support, unless the religious group is willing to provide social services to all comers, even to those of different or no religious beliefs and customs, without judgment and without proselytizing those who seek services. All references to god or religion shall remain outside of the government unless such references are germane to a legal proceeding such as a civil or criminal case. There shall be no endorsement or recognition of a god of any kind on currency, in The Pledge of Allegiance, in public schools or in any other government forum or building. If those rules are followed, the government shall not prohibit the free exercise thereof.”
It’s a little longer and they’d have to carve it in a bigger stone, but that sounds pretty good to me. I’m sure there’s some wormy lawyer who could find a loophole in that, but it’s certainly a lot clearer than “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. And, while we’re at it, we should change “all men are created equal” to mean more than just white, male, heterosexual Protestants.
This post continues in New & Improved First Amendment Part 2.