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Happy Constitution Day! Reflecting on our “First Freedoms”

Happy Constitution Day! Reflecting on our “First Freedoms”

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

These 15 words shape the United States' “First Freedoms,” enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights as the separation of church and state (the Establishment Clause) and religious freedom (the Free Exercise Clause).

But 277 years ago today, when the Constitution was ratified these freedoms and the many others in the Bill of Rights, were not included. Many of the framers thought the enumeration of these rights was unnecessary. Four years after the ratification of the Constitution, on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was added to the law of the land. But, it was not until the 1940s that the Supreme Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to extend the religion clauses to state and local governments.

Today, when religious freedom issues are more in the fore of people’s minds than ever before – the Hobby Lobby decision, the “Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act,” and the ongoing conversations on the religious exemption in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to name a few examples – we shouldn’t lose sight of the impressive legacy that our Constitution and Bill of Rights have left us. When the religion clauses were written, the world hadn’t known such a clear and meaningful separation between the government and religion. From the declaration of “certain inalienable rights” in 1776 to the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, the rights of citizens were not tied to their religion, but to their humanity. This was and continues to be an incredible shift in the way we think about rights – with especial consideration to the many people who live under oppressive regimes or who do not enjoy the same rights we do.

Church-state separation and religious freedom function hand in hand; when the government does not “establish religion” by preferring one over others, choosing a state religion, or being overly involved in the affairs of church and synagogue, religious freedom is enhanced because individuals can live according to the teachings of their faith without fear of persecution.

This Constitution Day, we celebrate that these religion clauses have allowed faith to flourish in America.

To read more about the Reform Jewish community's on these issues, visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's page on church/state separation.

Sarah Greenberg is the Assistant Legislative Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014. Sarah graduated in 2013 from Cornell University, and is originally from New York City.

Sarah Greenberg
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