We are on the verge of inaugurating a man as President of the United States who is spectacularly ignorant of the guiding principles of the Constitution that he will swear to “support and protect.” Despite his declaring his support for the non-existent Article XII of the Constitution, there are only seven, Trump has shown time and time again his disdain for any of the protections that this document affords ordinary Americans.
But let us look at the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as The Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
“Establishment of religion” might be perplexing to those not familiar with U. S. history. Prior to the time of the American Revolution, nearly all western European countries had “established religions” that were supported both financially and politically by the State. In Great Britain, this was the Church of England. It still remains the official church of the United Kingdom, with the Queen, not a government official, as its head.
Because our Founding Fathers knew that many Americans were refugees from religious persecution, ranging from the English Puritans to the protestant French Huguenots, they understood all too well the dangers of setting up one religion as the “official” religion of the country. Sadly, many people today claim that American is a “Christian” nation as though this were somehow the official religion of our country.
Donald Trump campaigned heavily among the Evangelical Christians by promising that “everyone will be able to say Merry Christmas again.” According to a Daily Beast article on Trump’s speech to the 2016 Value Voters Summit, he stated that “In a Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished and protected like you’ve never seen it before.”
This is directly counter to what the writers of the Constitution intended.
The First Amendment goes on to say about religion that Congress will also make no law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. For those who might think that our Founding Fathers were thinking only about the varied branches of Christianity or possibly Judaism, but certainly not Islam – WRONG! Not only were men such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams conversant with Islam, Thomas Jefferson even had his own copy of the Qu’ran. In fact, there were practicing Muslims in the United States from the time that there the United States of America.
Attempts ranging from local zoning boards refusing to grant permission to build a mosque, a synagogue, or a church based solely on religious grounds to government officials requiring pastors to turn over copies of their sermons infringe on everyone’s right to the “free exercise of religion.” Even more pernicious is Trump’s call for a registry of all Muslims in the United States. Nothing could be more chilling to the free exercise of religion than a registry of people practicing that religion. What would be the outcry if Trump called for a registry of all Jews or Mormons?
The First Amendment continues to state that Congress shall make no laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. These two are inextricably intertwined. The freedom to speak or write freely is the foundation of a free society. But there are limits on these rights. Many people frequently misquote Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes famous statement on freedom of speech. He never said, “Freedom of speech does not give one the right to shout fire in a crowded theater.” What he wrote was “Freedom of speech does not give one the right to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater.” [emphasis added]. Truth matters. So does using speech to endanger the lives of others.
Donald Trump has shown time and again that he doesn’t care if what he says is true (claiming Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination) or if endangers the health or lives of others (encouraging his supporters to attack protesters at his rallies. “I’ll pay your legal fees.”)
Freedom of the press faces increasing threats from a Trump presidency, as he has promised to “open up the libel laws to make it easier to sue.” What he means it that he wants to make it easier for him to sue people of the press who say things about him that he doesn’t like. Current libel laws already protect individuals from the press publishing things that they know to be untrue. By increasing his ability to sue (which he is already quite fond of doing) Trump wants to intimidate anyone in the press from writing anything he doesn’t like. The effects would be chilling and devastating.
In contrast, Thomas Jefferson felt so strongly about a free press that in 1787 he wrote: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
“the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” have not yet come under assault by a Trump administration. But given his cavalier attitude to the first three freedoms granted under the First Amendment, we need to remain vigilant that these rights are not diminished or threatened by a man who clearly does not respect our Constitution.
The attacks on the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment against any individual or group is an attack on the rights of every single person in the country.