For as long as I can recall, there has been a movement defending the notion of America as a Christian nation. Of late, one version of that idea has been expressed by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. His belief is that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects the free expression of Christians only. Adherents of non-Christian religions, on the other hand, may be tolerated but do not enjoy Constitutional protections for the free exercise of their faith. Fischer writes:
The leftwing political websites lit up over my column of last week in which I took the position that the First Amendment provides no guarantees to practitioners of the Islamic faith, for the simple reason it wasn’t written to protect the free exercise of Islam. It was written to protect the free exercise of the Christian faith.
Fischer defends this reading of the First Amendment by citing Congressional debate on the language proposed by James Madison in 1789. Several alternative suggestions were made, with some Representatives referring to “denominations,” “sects” and “societies” of religion. According to Fischer, these terms clearly point to intent to protect the various versions of Christianity. Indeed, at the time, most people professed allegiance to one Christian denomination or another.
However, a closer examination of the historical context reveals that the framers of the religious freedom amendment sought a broader respect for freedom of conscience than envisioned by Fischer. Most states had established Christian denominations in the years before the passage of the Constitution but two states did not, Rhode Island and Virginia. Virginia, the home of Madison and Jefferson, is the most relevant to what would become the First Amendment. In 1786, Madison succeeded in shepherding religious freedom protections through the Virginia legislature that in his words, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
The law that gave Madison his ebullient hope was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which reads in part:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.