First Amendment: What does it really say?

first amendment


Separation of Church and State. Hate speech. Media freedom. Campaign finance. Cancel speeches due to threats. Supporters claim that the first amendment defends all of these actions. The founders were specific and passionate about the first amendment. Let’s look at the 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.

  • “Congress shall make no law” is the opening phrase. It doesn’t say that Congress shall make some laws. It doesn’t say that Congress shall make a lot of laws. It says Congress shall make no laws.
  • “Respecting an establishment of religion” means that Congress will not establish a national religion. The founders were aware of the Episcopal church, the Church of England. The King was the national and the spiritual leader. The Puritans left England because of this restriction on their worship.

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court introduced the phrase “separation of Church and State” to our lexicon. The phrase was taken from a Thomas Jefferson letter to the Danbury Baptist church. James Madison was the author of the Bill of Rights, not Jefferson. Here is an excerpt from his letter.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

The wall was intended to separate the government from the Church and not to separate the church from the government.  Madison was clear about the intentions in the phrase that Congress shall not establish a religion.

  • “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – Congress is prohibited from restricting the free exercise of religion. Restricting churches from involvement in politics is a violation of this clause. Christianity is about aligning our thoughts and ways with God’s thoughts and ways.
  • “or abridging the freedom of speech” – Hateful, offensive speech is covered under this clause. The majority cannot shut down disagreeable speech. Threats are not protected by this phrase.
  • “or [the freedom] of the press” – The fourth estate (media) are given special rights and protections. Due to the internet, cable TV, and mobile devices there are more media choices providing real-time reporting than any time in history.
  • “or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – The right to peaceful protest is one of our unique privileges. Disrupting traffic, blocking access, and violent protests are not protected. Censorship is not the solution. The only appropriate way to confront disagreeable speech is more free speech. Present your counter argument and let the listeners decide.


The right to petition the government for a remedy for your grievances is primarily through the court systems or by addressing elected officials.


The first amendment is the foundation for all of the other amendments. It’s important to know what it says instead of what others tell you that it means. The first amendment gives me the right to publish this blog and for you to read it.