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Home » Archives » Legislative Issues » National Legislation Issues Archive » The Original Intent Myth: Deciphering the Rhetoric

The Original Intent Myth: Deciphering the Rhetoric

Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty

August 16, 2005


The Myth regarding the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause has become as dogmatically believed by the religious right as evolution is believed by the scientific community. Because of the upcoming changes on the Supreme Court, as well as a number of significant Court decisions, we need to spend some time understanding the myth and why we must continue to rebut it.
We are currently discussing the possibility of preparing a full length documentary film to counteract the claims of those who support the myth.  If you are interested in contributing to this important and timely project, please contact us as soon as possible. Time is of the essence!
Original Intent and the Separation of Church and State: Debunking the Myth
The Myth:  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was only intended to preclude the designation of an official national church or denomination.  It was not intended to prevent the government from getting involved in religion. This would permit the Federal government, and especially the states, to engage in a wide range of overtly religious activities, both promoting and financially supporting religion, while restricting the religious beliefs and practices of minority undesirable religions.

The Facts:

  1. The Establishment Clause did not grant the Federal government any power over religion. Architects of the Constitution, like James Madison, argued that a Bill of Rights was not needed, because the Federal government created by the Constitution was one of limited, delegated powers, with no power to infringe on individual rights. The Constitution simply doesn’t give the Federal government any power over religion.
  2. The Establishment Clause went through several drafts before its final version. Several of those drafts had language that clearly restricted the clause to prohibiting a national church. These drafts were rejected in favor of a broad prohibition on any form of religious establishment. The mythological version was most definitely considered by the founders, supported by a few, but decisively rejected! (See “The Establishment Clause” by Leonard Levy for a full analysis of these drafts.)
  3. The myth is really only viable because most people have forgotten what an “establishment” of religion is. The prohibition is on all forms of religious establishment, including Christianity. The founders were well aware of what it would mean to establish religion. Before the United States was formed, in the colonial era, there were a variety of examples where the government established religions. In some colonies, a single church was favored, while in others, two or more churches enjoyed official status and benefits. These benefits included tax funding of clergy and teacher salaries, and land grants for churches and schools. Some colonies even required clergy to be licensed by the government based on what they believed.  
  4. A corollary to the myth contends that the states are free to establish religion and that the establishment clauses only apply to the federal government. In theory, this was true until after the Civil War when Congress amended the Constitution to prevent states from infringing on the civil rights of their residents. In reality, all of the states had already adopted their own “establishment” clauses, and most were even stronger than the Federal Constitution. This myth pretends that state constitutions don’t exist, and that the Civil War never happened.

            Advocates of the Myth that government can be involved in religion so long as the government does not establish a national religion are offended at how some liberals have used the Separation of Church and State as a weapon against religion, and particularly against public religious expression.

The Facts:

  1. It is true some liberal groups are just as intemperate in advocating an extreme view of the Establishment Clause as some conservatives are in advocating a restrictive view of the Clause.
  2. Such intemperance does not discredit the basic concept of Separation of Church and State. Some members of the religious right are surprised to learn that Separation of Church and State is an idea that the Baptists came up with to avoid religious persecution.  It is not something that the secularists or atheists developed to attack Christianity. Unfortunately, the religious right in its quest for power has attacked this separation, calling it everything from a “gross misinterpretation” to a “satanic delusion.” This is inaccurate and dangerous for those who may find themselves categorized as religious minorities.
  3. Separation of church and state serves an important religious liberty function. It preserves the independence of religious institutions, while insuring that their survival is based on voluntary commitment and support, rather than state aid. Such voluntarism is the genius of the American system of church and state, since it has produced the most vibrant religious communities in the western world.



In the next few months, we will be hearing a lot in the media about what “original intent” means.  As you hear the rhetoric from both the left and the right, we need to remember what our founders really meant, and that the strength of our churches and of the government is best preserved when church and state are separate.

These religious liberty newsflashes and legislative e.lerts are published by the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Department of Public Affairs & Religious Liberty.


For assistance with a religious liberty problem:
Alan J. Reinach, Esq.,; 805-413-7396
Michael Peabody, Esq.; 916-446-2552
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