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5 - The Historical Context of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment

from Part II - Historical Interpretations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2019

Michael D. Breidenbach
Affiliation:
Ave Maria University, Florida
Owen Anderson
Affiliation:
Arizona State University
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Summary

The First Amendment’s religious clauses-“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof”-were adopted, somewhat begrudgingly, as an accommodation to the concerns of vocal religious minorities. Yet they also embodied a set of shared principles about church, state, and rights of conscience that had taken firm root in revolutionary America. Whereas “free exercise” had connoted limited grants to specific groups in particular areas, the term now referred to a broad freedom to assemble and preach. There was less consensus about what an establishment of religion entailed. However, the tide had clearly turned against exclusionary privileges. If the resulting constitutional language seemed somewhat ambiguous, it nonetheless clearly encompassed both an enlarged conception of religion and an unequivocal endorsement of liberty.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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