We’re in trouble. It’s hard to defend your First Amendment rights if you don’t know what they are.
The annual survey from the Freedom Forum Institute found that 23 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment “goes too far” but 74 percent of Americans disagreed — yet 40 percent could not name even one right the First Amendment protects.
Here are five specific rights addressed in the First Amendment:
- free exercise of religion,
- freedom of speech,
- freedom to assemble,
- freedom of the press, and
- freedom to petition the government.
“Of the 1,009 American adults surveyed, only 36 percent could correctly name one First Amendment right, only 12 percent could name two, and all five? Just one respondent correctly recalled each of the five rights protected by the First Amendment.”
Here’s a way to help you remember the first ten amendments. It’s from my book Memory Mechanics:
Start with a summary of each Amendment.
You can add your visualization techniques to many of these. Freedom of religion can be represented by a cross, Bible, or church building, speech by a podium or megaphone, press by a newspaper or book, assembly by a crowd or a group of picketers holding signs, and petition by a scroll with names written on it. Link them visually one to another.
Arms could be represented by a rifle or a revolver.
Quartering soldiers could be remembered by visualizing three soldiers coming to a home and hoping to gain entrance by paying a quarter.
You can finish the visualization with your own associations. Whatever works for you is best.
It’s not enough to know these particular rights. Knowing to whom they are addressed is equally important. For example, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of Religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Religion is the first right protected with the other four following.
It’s what Congress — our nation’s lawmaking body (not the Supreme Court) — can’t do. Also, note that nothing is said about the separation of Church and State. The Church/State language has been used as a cover for what the First Amendment was designed to do — to keep the Federal Government out of the business of the states.
Praying in Congress, something our constitutional framers approved of by hiring chaplains was not considered an establishment of religion. Neither was mentioning God, as the Declaration makes clear and the Constitution recognizes.
Joseph Story, a nineteenth-century Supreme Court justice, offers the following commentary on the First Amendment’s original meaning in his Commentaries on the Constitution:
The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism [Islam], or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects [denominations] and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which would give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.
Story’s Commentary clearly shows that the First Amendment was designed to prohibit the federal establishment of a national Church or the official preference of a particular Christian sect over all others. The First Amendment, according to Story, was not designed to disestablish the Christian religion at the state level but only to ensure that no single Christian sect (denomination) would be established in terms of constitutional preference:
Probably, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the . . . [First Amendment], the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State, so far as such encouragement was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.
While the national government received new powers as a result of the ratification of the Constitution, denying the states jurisdiction over religious issues was not one of them. The Tenth Amendment supports this view: “The powers, not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.” In the Circuit Court of Tennessee, August 1, 1891, the Court said, “As a matter of fact they (the founders of our government) left the States the most absolute power on the subject, any of them might, if they chose, establish a creed and a church and maintain them.”
Writing the minority opinion in the Wallace vs. Jaffree case (1985), Justice William Rehnquist stated, “The Framers intended the Establishment Clause to prohibit the designation of any church as a ‘national’ one. The clause was also designed to stop the Federal government from asserting a preference for one religious denomination or sect over others.”
If the amendment was constructed to remove religion from having an impact on civil governmental issues, then it would seem rather strange that on September 24, 1789, the same day that it approved the First Amendment, Congress called on President Washington to proclaim a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. The first Congress resolved:
That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a
day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an
opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.
The proclamation acknowledges “the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.” This is seemingly odd language by a group of men who supposedly just separated religion from governments at all levels. In fact, the resolution uses devoutly religious language to acknowledge that they would not even have a government without God’s blessing.