from behind the bar

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Some Thoughts on the First Amendment
Many of those in power says that because the founding generation was Christian, the United States is a Christian nation and must remain so. I don't think history gives us such a clear answer. Some of the Founders were probably Christian (as the religious right defines the term), some of them were Deists, and some of them were considered Christian at the time, but the sects they belonged to have nearly vanished today (how many Congregationalists and/or real Calvinists do you know?).

The point I wish to make is that even if the founders were Christians (as the religious right defines the term), why does that mean that we must follow their lead? Originalism is simply one way of interpreting the Constitution, but I think it cannot be usefully employed when it comes to the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment (and perhaps other portions of the Constitution, but my topic is limited). The basic idea of originalism is that we should interpret the Constitution in light of the intentions of those who drafted and approved it (The nuances of originalism are too complicated to go into here. Read Original Meanings if you are interested). If we want to change the meaning of the document, we should amend it. This is all well and good, but the amendment procedure is ill-suited to something as complex, personal, and fluid as religious belief. It would be nearly impossible to amend the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The wording would be hotly and endlessly debated in Congress and if, by some miracle, an amendment was passed that altered the text of the First Amendment, courts would be back to square one trying to determine the contours of the rights therein enshrined. Amending any portion of the Constitution is nearly impossible. Amending the Establishment and Free-Exercise clauses would be truly impossible.

I think the language that we have now is the best (and only) language we are ever going to get. The fact that we cannot change this language makes originalism terribly un-democratic with respect to the First Amendment (I am not arguing for or against originalism in all other circumstances. I think religion is an exceptional case and must be treated as such). We essentially have unchangeable text and a method of interpreting the text that does not allow us to change its legal meaning, even when each succeeding generation understands the text in a different way. The solution is to accept that judges will interpret the First Amendment in light of modern thinking, whatever it may be. The bare-bones, plain meaning of the text is unassailable (you cannot actually have an established church and you cannot actually make it illegal to exercise the religion of your choice), but anything beyond that should be interpreted in light of contemporary understandings and attitudes.

This is not a perfect solution, but it is an honest solution. There is an endless supply of historical data about what the founders believed and intended. We cannot know how this jumble of information would play out in modern society, especially in something as complicated and fluid as religion. Remember that abortion was not opposed on Christian grounds early on, nor was Christmas widely celebrated at the founding of the U.S. Things change. The law should acknowledge this. When our law cannot be amended according to the terms of the Constitution, we should do the best we can. This means vetting judges to make sure they are intelligent, willing to look at the world outside their chambers, of broad political and religious (or non-religious) backgrounds, and still insulated from removal like they are now. The judges will produce divergent and sometimes contradictory opinions, but that is no different than the results we get now. The difference will be honest discolsure about why the judges are doing what they are doing. There are already some areas of law where the Supreme Court recognizes evolving standards (what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment comes to mind). Adding religion to that list is not too far of a reach. The law should not change with every shift in the winds, but something as nuanced as the law of religion should change gradually as society's understanding of religion changes.