Paul Greenberg

"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."

--The First Amendment

Constitution of the United States

The words are old, the First Amendment having been adopted in 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights. But even today, whenever they're read, the effect is the same. The heart beats just a little faster.

There is a majesty about those words, not just in their grand sweep, but in the fine judgment one can sense behind them. Note the carefully chosen phrases, the balance and comprehension of its language, broad yet focused. It was as if the founders knew they were writing not just for their time but ours, as if they realized they were founding. A new order of the ages, as it still says on the dollar bill.

The constitution they put together would prove to be that rarest of cases in history and literature: a work of art produced by committee. (The King James Bible is another.) The constitution they crafted was, and is, about more than law. A mix of the mundane and visionary, it expressed great principles while dealing with practical details -- like terms of office and tax policy. Complex and simple, general and precise at the same time.

What a mix of idealism and practicality the founders bequeathed in the Constitution, much like the country and society it was meant for.

William Ewart Gladstone said it. He was the 19th-century statesman who alternated as Queen Victoria's first minister with the great Disraeli. He once described the U.S. Constitution as "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man."

For once Mr. Gladstone, an orator known for his lengthy and labored flourishes, may have committed an understatement.

Gladstone's tribute to the foresight of the founders was borne out the other day by a unanimous decision of the current Supreme Court of the United States. All nine justices agreed that, no, the federal government may not tell churches whom to hire and fire as teachers charged with transmitting the faith to the next generation.

All the justices had to do was read the crystal-clear language of the First Amendment. It specifies that Congress shall make no law even respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

In short: State, hands off Church.

And not just hands off, but stand clear. Don't even come close to crossing the line between church and state.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.