The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:
- "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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The following summaries rely on Supreme Court decisions which have clarified and defined the meaning and scope of this amendment.
While the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the First Amendment, the concept (originally mentioned by Thomas Jefferson) is a logical extension of the establishment and free exercise clauses. True freedom of religion depends on government neutrality with regard to religion.
- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"
This clause may appear to simply prevent the U.S. Congress from declaring a national religion. However, the Fourteenth Amendment extends these protections to all citizens, effectively prohibiting individual states from circumventing rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the Supreme Court has determined that the scope of this clause implies that "Government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion" (Justice David Souter, for the majority in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet).
Note that the word "respecting" in this clause means "regarding" and not "showing respect for".
Free exercise clause
- "...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"
Essentially, the rights of each individual to exercise their religious beliefs cannot be infringed. The government can intervene and prohibit certain religious practices if they conflict with other laws and if such interference has a secular, religiously neutral purpose. Generally one individual's rights end where another's begin, ensuring that "free exercise" cannot be used as an excuse for violating the rights of others.
- "...or abridging the freedom of speech"
This clause may best be described as "freedom of expression", as various Supreme Court opinions have concluded that the spirit of the law cannot be limited to simple speech. As the law has also been expanded to cover acts of protest (like flag burning), art, and pornography, it has also been subject to limitations.
The various limitations on free speech usually relate to other protections like copyright, truth in advertising (protection from fraud), campaign finance, protection of innocents, slander and libel, calls to violence, and speech that endangers others (e.g., shouting of "fire" in a crowded theater).
- "...or of the press"
This clause extends free speech to the press and has also been used to protect the press from special legislation which would unfairly inhibit (or promote) particular content.
Assembly and petitioning
- "...or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The final clause of the First Amendment guarantees the rights to petition the government and to peaceably assemble. While the two rights have been considered in tandem, the Supreme Court has also considered them independently. Hague v. CIO, for example, protects the right of the people to assemble for the "communication of views on national questions" and for "disseminating information."