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Framers' 'intent' can be tricky stuff page 2
The framers of the Constitution--particularly Virginians--had different "original intent" when it came to religion and the state.

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Date published: 8/14/2005


Even among people who opposed the establishment of religion, there was a diversity of opinion. Some supporters, like Patrick Henry in Virginia, thought that the Anglican church should be disestablished, but that church taxes should continue to be collected. Henry wanted to share the tax revenues with all the churches, not just the once-established Anglicans.

American refugees from state churches (like the Mennonites of Pennsylvania) thought that any government support was bad for churches, which should remain completely independent from all government support and entanglement.

Other Americans like Thomas Jefferson thought entanglement with churches was bad for the state. He even opposed the right of clergy to run for political office, a position successfully defeated by fellow Virginian James Madison. In Madison's view, such a position would deprive a group of citizens--namely, clergy--of a natural right conferred on them by God, or, at the very least, not conferred by the state.

Madison thought that establishment was bad for both state and church. In his view (which proved to be correct), religion would thrive if the smothering hand of the state were withdrawn. The state, after all, is almost comically incompetent in theological matters and should stick to the more mundane business it understands.

What Madison promoted was neutrality, an American state that neither embraced one religious group at the expense of all others nor restricted the free religious practice of its citizens. As Madison saw it, establishment was bad because it was contrary to natural rights and inevitably drove some forms of religious belief and practice from the public square.

In other words, the 18th century saw not one but several "original intentions"--from Henry, who wanted to support all religious groups, to Jefferson, who thought it better to support none. Madison took the middle road by envisioning a state that is religiously neutral rather than religiously unfriendly.

So perhaps the question the senators should ask Roberts is this: "Of all the framers of the Constitution, whose understanding of its original intention do you find most persuasive?"

Who indeed?

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