The Framers’ Debates on Religion
The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution
Lesson II. Amending the U.S. Constitution with a Bill of Rights
Step 6. Debating the Bill of Rights
Welcome & Overview
Hi again, it’s Eleesha. This part is the heart of the lesson. It’s about amending the Constitution with a Bill of Rights. I’m going to summarize and introduce the debates about religion in the First Federal Congress for you. In this part, you’ll learn that James Madison led the way in making proposals for the Bill of Rights. He was the first to speak up with a plan during the debates. James Madison proposed 3 main ideas about religion: First, The federal government should protect the rights of individuals to believe and worship as they choose; second, the federal government should not set up an established church; and third, If your religion prevented you from taking up arms, you can’t be forced to join the militia.
The other main idea James Madison proposed was the Bill of Rights should apply to the federal government and the states. Sadly, this proposal passed the House, but failed in the Senate and the Bill of Rights only ended up applying to the federal government. Join me to learn about James Madison’s proposals and then how the debates addressed religion in revolutionary America. We’ll also learn about the fears the delegates expressed regarding a federal amendment for religion. These include:
- Some feared a federal amendment for religion might be interpreted to abolish religion all together.
- Some feared no federal amendment might lead to a violation of rights for individuals.
- Some feared that one or more religious groups might take over power in the federal government.
This part ends with the many ways the amendments to the Constitution about religion changed before it arrived to the final version we know today.
First, let’s look at James Madison’s Religion Proposal for the Bill of Rights
James Madison came prepared to the congressional meeting having done his homework. On June 8, 1789 he proposed a list of amendments for the House of Representatives to consider. His proposed amendment concerning religion reads as:
“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.”
Madison’s proposal reflects these priorities:
- The federal government should protect the rights of individuals to believe and worship as they choose.
- The federal government should not set up an established church
What did Madison think was the most important part of the Bill of Rights? That it should be applied to both the federal and state governments, so he included a clause to do this.
When Thomas Tudor Tucker (South Carolina), who opposed ratifying the Constitution, moved to strike out the clause, Madison said abuses are most likely to take place under the state governments and the states would appreciate keeping the language. The clause passed the House several times, but died in the Senate. The Bill of Rights would only be applied to the federal government, not to the states.
This was his proposed clause:
“No State shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases.”
Madison’s proposal also touched on religion in his treatment of the right to bear arms and militia service. Madison proposed those who opposed taking up arms due to their religion, should not be forced to do so. The religious group nicknamed the Quakers, many of whom lived in Pennsylvania, were pacifists, meaning they did not believe in taking up arms in war. Many Quakers who refused military service during the Revolutionary War were treated as traitors to the patriot cause, yet they were living true to their religious convictions. Madison was thinking of this religious group when he crafted the amendment. Later in the debates, the clause was removed when it was determined that because militia participation was not required by everybody, those who opposed did not have to participate.
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
By Saturday, August 15, of the debates Madison’s proposed text for consideration by the House of Representatives had been revised. The debate that followed reveals the anxieties about a federal amendment for religion at the time. This is the proposed clause the delegates considered by August 15: “no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”
Delegates Debate Religion for the Bill of Rights
Peter Silvester (New York) feared the language would be misused to abolish religion all together.
Roger Sherman (Connecticut) thought the amendment was unnecessary because Congress had no authority designated in the Constitution to make a religious establishment.
Daniel Carroll (Maryland) expressed that he did not care about the specific words, but the main idea he wanted protected was: the rights of conscience are “of peculiar delicacy, and will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand” and the current Constitution did not protect those rights enough. Adopting the amendment would “ease the minds of the people…”
James Madison (Virginia) explained he proposed the amendment because the words were required by the various state ratification conventions. He then explained what he meant by the amendment, “that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.”
Benjamin Huntington (Connecticut) thought the amendment would be taken to be hurtful to the cause of religion. He wanted the amendment to be made to protect the rights of religion, “but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all.”
James Madison then suggested that they insert the word national before religion would clarify what he meant. He believed that “the people feared one sect might obtain pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.”
Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts) did not support inserting the word national before religion. He pointed out that many of the Anti-federalists in the state ratification conventions accused the new Constitution of consolidating the state governments and the word national would reinforce that fear.
James Madison withdrew his amendment to insert the word national before religion.
The debates in the First Federal Congress showed the fears Americans in the revolutionary generation had when making federal laws about religion. Some feared federal laws that prevented an establishment of religion on the federal level might be interpreted to abolish religion all together. Some feared no clear protections for religion might lead to a violation of rights for individuals. Some feared that one or more religious groups might take over power in the federal government.
It was an enormous task to create a federal religion amendment for the Bill of Rights. The delegates needed to sooth these fears and create an amendment that could be ratified by the states.
The debates about religion for the Bill of Rights in the First Federal Congress were conducted from June to September 28, 1789. The part we just discussed happened August 15. The text changed several more times. Then, on September 28, 1789, the House and Senate settled on the First Amendment we know today.