Read the winning Fist Amendment essays
1st place - high school
Bishop England High School
Grade 10, Mrs. Clelia Casey
What is Religious Freedom?
The framers of the United States Constitution knew that freedom of expression forms the basis of a democratic society. The Enlightenment idea of the common man having the right to not only consciously make decisions, but to openly make them known without repercussions is what set early democracies apart from their monarchial counterparts. Being a product of Enlightenment ideas, the US and its Constitution had to give citizens the right of expression, which includes freedom of thought, speech, religion and many others. These rights were guaranteed to US citizens by the Bill of Rights, a set of 10 amendments to the Constitution that laid out the civil rights guaranteed to all. From the first amendment come the lines which will be the focus of this essay:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This “Freedom of Religion clause” makes the US government the sole custodian and protector of religion in the United States. Just as justice is blind in the courts, the government is blind to any single religion. Congress is bound to make no law pertaining to a religion or a group of religions while excluding others, but also never limit religious expression as a whole. Through these general protections of religion, those who choose to practice no religion are also protected. Because Congress cannot promote religion unless it promotes every religion, someone who has no religion can entirely avoid the practice of religion, and has a right to do so.
In the US today, the “Freedom of Religion” clause is most commonly invoked in arguments pertaining to scientific education in public schools. The topic on which the debate is most heated is that of the origins of species. Many feel that the narrative of the origins of species as found in the Bible, the holy book of the largest religion in the US, should be taught alongside Darwin’s theory of Evolution through natural selection. Darwin’s theory, published in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, is the most widely accepted scientific theory about the origin of the Earth’s massively diverse flora and fauna. Although those that support this dual education do call upon the “Freedom of Religion” clause to support their view, the clause itself is what prevents religious ideas from permeating US public schools and classrooms. Not only would teaching Christian doctrine in a public school be obviously “respecting” the Christian religion, but it would infringe upon the rights of students to choose to practice a different religion or none at all. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were set up in such a way so that the will of the majority, through voting, cannot take away the rights of the minority. US citizens must take a clear look at what freedom of religion really means, and how much they are really willing to promote their beliefs over others’ rights.
2nd place - high school
Name: Sydney Memminger
Teacher: Mr. Draewell
School: Charleston Charter for Math & Science
The True Meaning of “Freedom of Religion”
Today the United States is a very diverse country with many immigrants coming in every year; some may say that it is a melting pot. Being that people historically come from all ends of the word many religions are observed in the U.S., however it was not always that way. The founders that worked so hard to establish this country had to go through many religious struggles. After many were mutilated, pilloried, exiled, and even killed by the British Crown, people began to run to the New World in search of religious freedom (“First Amendment”). Thus the first amendment was born; in 1791 the clause was written to protect the freedom of religion (“First Amendment: Free Exercise Clause…”). It ensured that everyone had the right to practice their beliefs.
Ever since the colonists broke away from England’s controlling monarchy the idea that man was entitled to natural rights influenced the Constitution. Through the years the idea of freedom of religion has been tested by many religions. Issues such as the Civil Rights movement, or, more recent issues like abortion, and the legalization of gay marriages have tested the people’s religion as versatile beliefs clashed.
In the Civil Rights movement there were two clashing beliefs: one was the belief that African Americans were inferior to their Caucasian counterparts; the other was the belief that “all men were created equal.” The conflict was brutal, black people either reacted to the white stubborn attitude with acts of violence or peaceful protest. It is struggles like this event in history that truly shows how different beliefs clash. Violence and religion played some part, whether it was a prayer or the burning of a cross, or once the fight was over a special thanks to God through different beliefs. Religion is what got African Americans through most of their tough times such as the civil rights movement. If they were not able to practice their belief in times such as the civil rights movement life would have been so much harder. It still does.
Separation of church and state is very important because it helps to take a lot of religious conflict out of governmental issues. The idea that everyone has the right to exercise and enjoy any religion or to worship without discrimination may not seem like such a “big deal” to some, but it is very significant. We the people have come a long way, from a time when we were forced to observe the religion of the crown. To this very day the freedom of religion is still as important as it was back then.
Think of the struggles and conflicts that we go through today; it could be far worst if the first amendment was never drafted. Homosexuals would probably be prosecuted for attempting to get married. The church would probably continue to have a huge role in the government. Life would be more complicated, it would be just like life prior to the colonies. “Freedom of religion” is truly a gift, a natural right.
“First Amendment.” Encyclopedia.com. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/First
“First Amendment: Free Exercise Clause (1791) | Bill of Rights Institute.” Bill of Rights Institute. N.p. n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://billofrightsinstitute.org/resources/educator-resources/americapedia/americapedia-bill-of-rights/first-amendment/free-exercise-clause/>.
1st place - middle school
Buist Academy for Advanced Studies
Teacher: Maury Deters
The inalienable right to religious freedom is guaranteed to the American citizens in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Each American citizen retains this right, and with that right comes the American ideal of freedom. America has been a haven for people persecuted because of their religious beliefs, starting with the Mayflower Pilgrims in the 1600s. Through the centuries, America has been a religious melting pot. People have fled from religious persecution to live safely under the umbrella of religious freedom the American Constitution provides: Puritans from Britain, Jewish people from Germany, and ethnic groups from the Sudan are a few examples. The First Amendment phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” means that government cannot stop law-abiding religious practices, and they cannot put priority or emphasis on a certain religion.
The beauty of the First Amendment is that not only can Americans choose their place of worship, but also the decision to adopt or renounce a religion lies with the citizens. If a Jewish person wants to become Christian, or vice versa, the government cannot prevent this in any way. The First Amendment legislates tolerance for all religions, because the government cannot enact restrictions concerning specific religious groups. An example of these restrictions would be the German Reich’s laws requiring that Jewish people wear the Star of David on their coats. The First Amendment also guarantees that one religion will not hold legal privileges over another. In Denmark, freedom of worship is Constitutionally established, but the Church of Denmark is supported by the state and has benefits from the government. America’s founding fathers wanted to throw off the yoke of British tyranny and establish a country where people were free to determine how they wanted to live, including choosing their own religions.
2nd place - middle school
15 May 2013
Our Choice, Our Life
The United States of America; a country founded on freedom. The freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, the right to petition, and the freedom of religion are guaranteed to every citizen by the first amendment of the Constitution. In my opinion, the freedom of religion clause is the most important clause for the people of the United States. Most people find comfort and safety with their religion, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or even a practice of Buddhism. The government of the United States is completely tolerant of every religion practiced in the world as long as it is not harmful toward other people. This fact definitely distinguishes the United States from the majority of the world. When students around the world study foreign countries, they do not learn about the religion of the United States. They learn about the lack of a national religion, and the fact that all are accepted. I think that the United States made a good choice in including this freedom in the Bill of Rights. When the pilgrims from Europe first came to the New World, many of them were escaping religious persecution. They were not allowed to practice their religion, so they came to the New World so they could worship freely. If the governing bodies of the newly founded America had chosen not to allow religious freedom, they would have been hypocritical and unjust. The foundations of the United States were well thought out and, in my opinion, portray the true values of our country. It is our choice whether or not we wish to practice a religion, and thanks to the Founding Fathers, we are given the liberty to shape our lives into what we want them to be.
Isle of Palms Freedom of Religion – Freedom of Conscience
The most notorious of London’s jails was Newgate Prison. It was described as “hell on earth” by those who survived it. Daily rations were bread and water, unless prisoners could buy something else. Most couldn’t. Neither did they have a change of clean clothes. Over time, the cloth rotted off of their bodies. And typhus claimed more lives than the executioner.
William Penn was imprisoned at Newgate twice in 1670. He was a prominent member of a religious sect called the Society of Friends and one of six thousand members jailed since 1662. In fact, Quakers (as they were known by outsiders) were so persecuted that they held annual ‘Meetings for Sufferings’ to seek redress. This time, Penn and William Mead had been arrested for unlawful assembly in the street after authorities locked them out of their own meeting house.
For centuries, religious conformity and obedience to law were one and the same. Those not part of England’s state religion were called “dissenters.” They were marginalized, even criminalized. Dissenters were also required by law to pay tithes to the official church whether they sat in the pews or not.
In contrast, freedom of conscience was the cornerstone of Quaker ideology. They espoused that God is in everyone and that no man (and no government) should force religious beliefs on anyone.
Like other dissenters, the Quakers sought haven in America. William Penn and other Quakers founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681. The constitution of Pennsylvania, like that of South Carolina, kept government out of religion. This separation of church and state continued after independence when our forefathers first outlined the rights and freedoms of American citizens. The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Because of the First Amendment, our government allows us freedom of conscience and does not dictate our spirituality. The amendment prevents the creation of a state religion, prevents Congress from interfering with religious entities, and even prohibits a government declaration that there is or is not a God. Our founding fathers (like the Quakers) understood that in the matter of religion, we must agree to disagree.
As American citizens, therefore, we must grant the same freedom to one another. We must respect our neighbor’s worship. Spiritual superiority has no place in a country founded on spiritual freedom. Likewise, believers and non-believers should grant one another the same freedom of conscience granted to us by our government.
We must remember why our ancestors created the First Amendment. Remember that our children hear our hate and will keep it alive for us long after we are dead. Remember that the Constitution is a living document. It can and has been changed. Freedom of religion is freedom of conscience, and it is up to us to keep it alive.