quist and Mr. Meese. Established churches existed in several colonies. Citizens could be fined for non-attendance. As late as the 1780s, taxes supported those churches, heresy remained a capital offense, and denial of the Trinity could fetch a prison sentence. Protests against such religious tyranny had to be subtle. George Washington, for instance, refused to take communion. When criticized for this by the Rev. James Abercrombie of Philadelphia, Washington stayed home on communion Sundays. A debater’s point can be made for Justice Rehnquist’s assertion that Jefferson’s metaphor is bad history, since Jefferson served as our minister to France in 1789, when Congress proposed the First Amendment and the remainder of the Bill ‘of Rights. Jefferson wrote the phrase about the wall 13 years later, in 1802, when responding to a letter from the Danbury Baptists Association in Connecticut: “. . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” But Jefferson’s temporary locale in 1789 did not dethrone him as spiritual champion of religious freedom any more than Albert Einstein’s absence from the Manhattan Project stripped him of leadership in theoretical atomic physics. Every congressman indeed every student of the subject worldwide knew of Jefferson’s Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which James Madison pushed through the legislature in 1785 and which provides: “We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever. . . . ” Jefferson thought so much of it he dictated this inscription for his tombstone: “Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” He didn’t even mention the presidency. In his “Notes on Virginia” a decade earlier, Jefferson wrote: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” He did not say 20 gods or one god. Justice Rehnquist said the metaphor is useless as a guide for judging. He listed eight activities the court has held government may do and eight closely related things it may not do. Government may pay for bus transportation to religious schools, he said, but may not pay for bus transportation from the parochial school to the public zoo or natural history museum for a field trip. Truly, the court has created a mess. There is a simple way to unscramble it. Restore the wall by changing the eight “mays” to “may nots.” Well and good, but so far I had not solved my problem of refuting directly the argument of Mr. Rehnquist and Mr. Meese. I went to the same biographies, histories, and collections of writings I assume Mr. Rehnquist’s clerks did. This is soil plowed and replowed for 200 years. What did I hope to find? Jefferson wrote that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship. . . .” Madison, who wrote the final version of the First Amendment, said in a letter nine months before its adoption that he particularly sought to safeguard “the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude.” On the day he introduced in Congress amendments for a Bill of Rights, June 8, 1789, he proposed: “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 on any pretext, infringed.” He didn’t say the civil rights of Christians. He didn’t even say the civil rights of those who believe in a Supreme Being. He said the civil rights of none shall be abridged. As the wording changed and changed again, several members of the House spoke of their fears the amendment might have a tendency “to abolish religion altogether” or “be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion” or would “patronise those who professed no religion at all.” \(Justice Rehnquist notes these in his dissent but seems not to understand the speakers indeed worried about the conflict between religion and no religion, not just about Congressman Thomas Scott of Pennsylvania, discussing conscientious objection to bearing arms, told the first Congress he wanted “to guard against those who are of no religion. It has been urged that religion is on the decline; if so, the argument is more strong in my favor, for when the time comes that religion shall be discarded, the generality of persons will have recourse to these pretexts to get excused from bearing arms. I still lacked the weapon I needed, the one that probably didn’t exist. Justice Rehnquist rightly noted the sketchy nature of reports on the House debate and the absence of any record of the debate in the Senate, which met behind closed doors. Already having checked every page cited under “religion, no establishment of” in the index of Bernard Schwartz’s monumental “The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History,” I hurriedly flipped through nearby pages. That’s when I found it, on page 1148, volume two. A charge ran down my spine. Granted, there is no record of the Senate debate, but we know what proposals that body considered and voted on. The version of the First Amendment the House sent over to the Senate read this way: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.” Always more conservative on fundamental issues, the Senate considered several proposed changes in the House version. The first motion proposing a change called for striking out “religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and substituting these words: “one religious sect or society in preference to others.” The Senate rejected that motion. Precisely the position Mr. Rehnquist and Mr. Meese tell us the Founders intended was considered by the Founders and voted down. The Senate ended up weakening the House version by deleting “nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.” But a conference committee, on which Madison served, replaced the tame Senate version with Madison’s final version. I had raked through the historical rubble looking for a chisel or even a shard. This was no chisel kicked up by me to use to chip away at the edges of a Moral Majority humbug. The thing that leaped into my hand was a lance of steel to pierce its heart. Oh, happy weapon. An otherwise excellent index in Schwartz’s tome omitted page 1148 on this issue, leaving only a few scholars, and none of Mr. Rehnquist’s clerks or Mr. Rehnquist himself, aware of the weapon that would kill this bedtime story. Government is to be neutral between sects and also between religionists and those with no religion. 24 OCTOBER 10, 1986
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.