2012 First Amendment Essay

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In the summer of 1774 he addressed his fellow citizens on General Gage’s proclamation in Massachusetts, “declaring a Treason for the Inhabitants of that Province to assemble themselves to consider of their Grievances and form Associations for their common Conduct on the Occasion.” Gage was Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s army in America; his “odious and illegal proclamation must be considered as a plain and full Declaration that this despotick Viceroy will be bound by no Law, nor regard the constitutional Rights of his Majesty’s Subjects, whenever they interfere with the Plan he has formed for oppressing the good People of the Massachusetts Bay.” When Jefferson and his colleagues in the Continental Congress met two years later to issue their own proclamation—for independence and against tyranny—they never forgot that the right to assemble peaceably gives a people the way to carry their thoughts and speeches into civic action.Therefore, the same Member concluded, “the people have the right to consult for the common good.” When the French political philosopher and parliamentarian Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America a half a century later, he remarked on the importance of civil associations to American self-government.Under the old states of Europe, the class of people who stood between the central state powers and the people had been the aristocrats—the same class that forced the Magna Charta on the King of England.Citizens cannot invoke the First Amendment to break general laws (although exemptions may be granted).But within the confines of the law, all citizens have the same right of conscience.As George Washington explained in his famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” There are, of course, some limits to the free exercise of religion.But what good would my worship, my speaking, and my writing be—beyond those who happen to worship with me, or hear me speak, or read my writings (small numbers all!)—if I and my fellow citizens had no right to get ourselves organized, to get the attention of our elected representatives, to life? During the virulent civil wars of England, fought over intractable issues of religious conviction, what sensible king would not view such gatherings with fear and suspicion?(Amendment I) Establishing freedom of religion as both constitutional principle and social reality is among America’s greatest contributions to the world.Nevertheless, the concept of free exercise of religion is not self-defining.


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