The Founding Fathers on Church and State
Flames of many a constitutional argument are fanned by the fact that the "Framers," the men who wrote the document in 1774, left little written record indicating their exact intent in some of the Constitution's key clauses. But, when explanatory personal notes or statements of the Framers can be found, they are almost always quoted by one or both sides in constitutional debates.
In committee meetings and floor debate on Rep. Aderholt's successful "Ten Commandments" amendment, to H.R. 1501, the "Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act of 1999," supporting speakers cited several direct statements of the Framers on the question religion and the First Amendment. Here are just a few of those:
Oliver Ellsworth, third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- "The primary objects of government are peace, order, and prosperity of society. To the promotion of these objects, good morals are essential. Institutions for the promotion of good morals are therefore objects of legislative provision and support, and among these, religious institutions are eminently useful and important."
Henry Laurens -- "I had the honor of being one who framed the Constitution. In order effectually to accomplish these great constitutional ends, it is especially the duty of those who bear rule to promote and encourage respect for God and virtue."
President John Adams, a signer of the Bill of Rights -- "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God and that there is no force of law in public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If 'thou shall not covet' and 'thou shall not steal' are not commandments of heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free."
Thomas Jefferson -- "No power to proscribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the Federal Government. It must, then, rest with the States."
President John Quincy Adams directly addresses the Ten Commandments --"The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal code as well as a moral and religious code. These are laws essential to the existence of men in society and most of which have been enacted by every Nation which ever professed any code of laws. Vain indeed would be the search among the writings of secular history to find so broad, so complete and so solid a basis of morality as the Ten Commandments lay down."
According to Representatives speaking in support of Rep. Aderholt's amendment, these statements indicated the Framers' belief that encouraging religion was, in fact, a duty of government and clearly not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
In voting for the Aderholt Amendment, the Members of Congress responded to what is probably prevailing public opinion on the issue of religion in public schools. Acknowledging and responding to public opinion is part of Congress' job.
The Supreme Court, however, represents the Constitution. The job of a Supreme Court Justice is to interpret and protect the Constitution without regard to public opinion or politics. This job often brings the Supreme Court into conflict with public opinion, as well as the opinions of Congress, the President and, yes, even the Founding Fathers.