Tomorrow is the 216 anniversary of the ratifying of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The importance of this document to early Americans cannot be overstated. Without this guarantee of individual rights, there probably would not have been a United States of America. The citizens of America had just fought a war against a king and they were not about to give up their hard won freedom.
In 1787 the First Congress drafted the Constitution. It was an extraordinary document - a federal system to be created which included "checks and balances" on power. Yet, many of the citizens were suspicious of the government still having too much power. The proposed Constitution was debated. The famous patriot, Patrick "give me liberty or give me death" Henry spoke against ratification. He argued that the strong national government proposed by the Federalists was a threat to individual rights and that the president would become a king. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, proposed that the Constitution be amended. Jefferson said, "a bill of rights is what the people are entitled, no just government should refuse." James Madison wrote the document which included twelve amendments to the constitution. It was passed by Congress and sent to the States, where ten amendments were ratified. The Bill of Rights became law on December 15, 1791.
It seems appropriate that the ratification of the Bill of Rights happened just before Christmas, since it is at Christmas that two of these rights are challenged every year - the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The first amendment says, "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."
Many battles have been fought in the courts over just what the first amendment means. It is sometimes used as an excuse to forbid schools from having displays that say, "Merry Christmas" and to forbid schools from including Christmas carols in their programs. This is not what the amendment says.
Here are some legal guidelines for celebrating Christmas from Dr. David C. Gibbs, attorney with the Christian Law Association, host of a radio program called "The Legal Alert."
"Private religious speech, such as saying "Merry Christmas," even in public schools or workplaces, is protected free speech. Children may give religious gifts to their teachers or to other students, just as government and other employees may give religious greetings to coworkers.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that the Establishment Clause requires neutrality, not censorship. Christmas Carols can be sung in public school programs, as long as the program also includes secular music.
"A public school or local community may include religious items in a holiday or winter display, as long as they are part of a combined secular/religious display.
"A public school student may write about his Christmas observations or discuss them in a class presentation, and a teacher is permitted to provide an objective explanation of the religious origins of Christmas as part of a curriculum about the cultural and religious aspects of national holidays. Government officials may also recognize the religious aspects of this celebration."
The Bill of Rights, passed 216 years ago tomorrow, guaranteed freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This is the first amendment, because freedom of religion and freedom of speech are the first freedoms for a free people. Merry Christmas.
John Donaldson is the pastor at Newborn & Mansfield UMC. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org