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posted: 12/27/2013 4:40 AM

Clarifying the First Amendment

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Clarifying the First Amendment

In his Dec 17 column "Picking fights over religion", writer Gene Lyons makes some errors and misleading comments, the most notable of which I'd like to correct.

He said that fights over Nativity scenes at local government buildings are "about an 'establishment of religion,' which the same First Amendment categorically forbids." He is incorrect in his reference to the First Amendment. The text of that amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion ..." "Congress shall make no law." The display of a crèche at a local courthouse is not Congress making a law. In fact, it doesn't involve making a law at all.

As a matter of history, the framers of the Constitution intended to prohibit the new national government from interfering in certain areas considered to be states' rights. Six states had state-recognized religions when the nation was founded. For better or worse, that's why the First Amendment is more a prohibition on Congress than a protection of "individual" rights. The framers made this distinction -- no other amendment in the Bill of Rights is addressed specifically to Congress.

Only after the Fourteenth Amendment and several (some would say lawless) court decisions was the First Amendment applied to the states. I don't have the space to address the substance of Mr. Lyons' column, which is also suspect; I'm only correcting his inaccurate citing of the Constitution.

Tyler Benjamin

West Chicago

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