We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
-- Declaration of Independence
When Thomas Jefferson wrote these words, men throughout the colonies were preparing for war with a British empire that was predominant in every facet of military power. For this reason, many among in the British military did not take the colonists seriously and others within the British aristocracy openly ridiculed them.
The colonists were viewed as hayseeds with old rifles, little, if any, military training, and a lack of gratitude for King George III’s good graces.
Many of these things were true -- the colonists did have old rifles, many of them did lack military training, and, in 1776, a growing number of them resented King George more than they thanked him.
Yet the colonists had something that bound them together tighter than new rifles, military training, or gratitude to a king ever could -- and that was the conviction that liberty was a gift given by our Creator rather than our government: that all men -- rich and poor, educated and uneducated -- were created and “endowed with certain unalienable rights.”
At the time of his writing in 1776, Jefferson summed up these rights with the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” And just over a decade later, as James Madison held the pen and our Founding Fathers gathered to write a Constitution, the freedoms that constitute “Liberty” were fleshed out and hedged in so that they would be protected from government intrusion as the years rolled by.
The first of these freedoms was and is freedom of religion -- “Congress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion.” So begins the First Amendment.
Conscience, guided by history, taught the Founders that governments which chose one denomination over another were governments headed toward despotism. So they not only barred the government from choosing one over another but even from interfering with religion in practice.
Therefore, after barring Congress from “respecting an establishment of religion,” the Founders blocked Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Through the centuries and decades since the Declaration and the Constitution were written and signed, revisionists have done their best to reframe our Founders’ intentions. And some jurists have done their best to rewrite portions of the First Amendment.
Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor in the Reagan Administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal alliance employing a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.