What is the First Amendment?
The Constitution of the United States was ratified, that is officially approved, by the individual states of the United States in 1788. The new government under this constitution would become effective on March 4, 1789. In September 1789, Congress sent to the states twelve amendments, or additions, to the Constitution. Ten would later be ratified. These Ten Amendments became a part of the United States Constitution on December 10, 1791. They were called the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides for citizens to be able to practice whatever religion they choose without having government interfere with that right. It also allows for freedom of expression, both oral and written. The Amendment allows for the right of citizens to gather together peaceably. A citizen may make a complaint to or seek help from the government. No law may be passed to interfere with those rights.
The First Amendment mentions religion two times. First it says that a person in the United States is free to follow any religion he chooses. Second, the government may pass no law setting up just one religion for the country, a religion which everyone must adhere to. Nowhere in this Amendment or in the Constitution is the phrase 'separation of church and state' mentioned. Thomas Jefferson first mentioned the phrase in 1802. He said that the First Amendment was written to put be a wall of separation between the church and state. The government could not mandate anything about religion, and people were free to do as they choose regarding religious beliefs.
The courts have had to deal with different kinds of cases regarding the freedom of religion mentioned in the First Amendment. Some examples are cases involving prayer in school and the freedom of parents to withhold medical care for their children because of their religion.
Regarding freedom of speech, the courts have defined three types of free speech. 'Pure' speech is when a person speaks in front of a willing audience. This is usually protected by the government. 'Speech-plus' involves speech and actions. The government may interfere if these actions are harmful to others, like blocking traffic or trespassing. 'Symbolic speech' is not really the spoken or written word but symbols of many types. The government can interfere in some cases. Examples of 'symbolic' speech might be wearing black armbands in school, carrying protest signs with offensive pictures or burning the flag. Many of the same rules apply to freedom of the press, newspapers, magazines or television and radio. Also, the government cannot interfere before anything is said or printed publicly.
The freedom to gather peacefully at a meeting is usually not a problem for the government. Most often this right is protected. However, this freedom must be weighed up against the rights of others. Gatherings which disrupt traffic or other people's business or lives would not be protected. Usually a group must have a government permit to gather. These permits are granted if there is sufficient means for police to keep order if needed.
For the first one hundred years, the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment were not really tested. Since the beginning of the 1900's, people have gone to the government many times when they think that one of these freedoms has been thwarted by some occurrence or some person or group.
However, the First Amendment remains a very powerful means to protect the rights which are available to all persons in the United States.
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