Freethought Almanac

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September 25: A Secular Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights Passed
by the U.S. Congress (1789)

It was on this date, September 25, 1789, that the U.S. Congress passed and sent for ratification the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which came to be known as the Bill of Rights.

To Freethinkers, the most important amendment is the first, yet when most people think of the First Amendment, the "Free Speech" clause is what comes to mind. In reading the 45 words in the original text

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

what is striking is that religion is mentioned before speech! If the Founders put safeguards against government support of religion before safeguards against government suppression of speech, there must have been a reason. It is no accident that the United States of America is the first nation in history to separate religion from government. In fact, freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion – one is meaningless without the other – were integral to the design of the new nation.

How did this come about? The Providence, RI, settlement under Roger Williams guaranteed religious freedom at its founding in 1656 – this was not a concept invented by Maryland Catholics, as some Catholics would have you believe – and even the Pilgrims were at first a tolerant people when they founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.

But by 1691, the Pilgrims had instituted the intolerant Calvinism of the Puritans, who came to the American shores specifically to establish a Bible-based society. It is said that the Puritans loved religious freedom so much, they kept it all to themselves! Heresy was a capital offense in the Virginia colony, punishable by burning, and the Virginians particularly targeted Quakers. In many colonies, people who were not orthodox Christians could be denied civil rights and jailed for acknowledging the wrong invisible friend.

After seeing and experiencing all this, and mindful of the bloody centuries of religious persecution in Europe, the founders of the United States of America were determined not to fashion a nation united under democracy, only to have it divided by sect – and modern fundamentalists should take note. Instead, the founders adopted a First Amendment with both an (anti-) Establishment Clause and a (pro-) Free Exercise Clause. Their careful crafting has made the United States, in spite of dire warnings from the pulpit (then and now), and perhaps counterintuitively, the most god-fearing, church-going, religiously faithful nation in the modern world!

But for many Christians, especially fundamentalists, that is not enough. In spite of an overwhelming numerical majority in the United States, a church on practically every corner, an overwhelming presence on radio and TV and even on the Internet, a religion page in most daily newspapers, and a tolerant and at times willingly unskeptical news media, as well as the control of one major political party and the welcome infiltration of another – not to mention the possession of money that multiplies like loaves and fishes – most fundamentalist Christians in the US behave as though they are daily being dragged out of their homes and racked into recanting.

It isn't so. But when you believe in absolutes and are impervious to empiricism, you'll always find demons to fight; there will remain a conviction that freedom of religion means only freedom for your own religion – that is, only for people who agree with you. The Bill of Rights, passed on this date in 1789, and ratified on 15 December 1791, requires constant vigilance from Freethinkers and conscientious theists alike, so that it may continue to guarantee freedom to our children's children.

Amendment I – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment II – A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment III – No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment IV – The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V – No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment VI – In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Amendment VII – In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment VIII – Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment IX – The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X – 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

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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