Debates in Congress
to the Constitution
August 15, 1789
Annals of Cong. 757 et seq. (J. Gales ed., 1834)
June 8, 1789 formulation of the Religion Clauses was
referred to the Select Committee of the House of Representatives.
The Select Committee modified Madison's proposal, as
stated below, to read: "[N]o religion shall be established
by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be
infringed." The House of Representatives discussed the
Select Committee's amendment in its August 15 debate
set forth below. The debate reveals substantial consensus
regarding the representatives' objectives, but considerable
disagreement regarding the appropriate language to secure
them. Among the agreed objectives was that by proposing
the amendment, they meant to encourage religion by allowing
nondiscriminatory government aid to religion and by
securing the rights of conscience and free exercise
of religion. Madison also made clear by distinguishing
"a religion" from "a national religion," that they intended
to prohibit the national establishment of a religion,
but not the state establishments. Consideration of the
Religion Clauses in the House continued on August 20,
1789. There is no record of the debate in the Senate
regarding the Religion Clauses.
Lewis Roca Rothgerber
Religious Institutions Group
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House again went into a Committee of the whole on the proposed
amendments to the constitution, Mr. Boudinot in the chair.
fourth proposition being under consideration, as follows:
1. Section 9. Between paragraphs two and three insert "no
religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal
rights of conscience be infringed."
Sylvester had some doubts of the propriety of the mode of
expression used in this paragraph. He apprehended that it
was liable to a construction different from what had been
made by the committee. He feared it might be thought to
have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.
Vining suggested the propriety of transposing the two members
of the sentence.
Gerry said it would read better if it was, that no religious
doctrine shall be established by law.
Sherman thought the amendment altogether unnecessary, inasmuch
as Congress had no authority whatever delegated to them
by the constitution to make religious establishments; he
would, therefore, move to have it struck out.
Carroll --As the rights of conscience are, in their nature,
of peculiar delicacy, and will little bear the gentlest
touch of governmental hand; and as many sects have concurred
opinion that they are not well secured under the present
constitution, he said he was much in favor of adopting the
words. He thought it would tend more towards conciliating
the minds of the people to the Government than almost any
other amendment he had heard proposed. He would not contend
with gentlemen about the phraseology, his object was to
secure the substance in such a manner as to satisfy the
wishes of the honest part of the community.
Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to
be, that congress should not establish a religion, and enforce
the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship
God in any manner contrary to their conscience. Whether
the words are necessary or not, he did not mean to say,
but they had been required by some of the State Conventions,
who seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause
of the constitution, which gave power to Congress to make
all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the
constitution, and the laws made under it, enabled them to
make laws of such a nature as might infringe the rights
of conscience, and establish a national religion; to prevent
these effects he presumed the amendment was intended, and
he thought it as well expressed as the nature of the language
Huntington said that he feared, with the gentleman first
up on this subject, that the words might be taken in such
latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion.
He understood the amendment to mean what had been expressed
by the gentleman from Virginia; but others might find it
convenient to put another construction upon it. The ministers
of their congregations to the Eastward were maintained by
the contributions of those who belonged to their society;
the expense of building meeting-houses was contributed in
the same manner. These things were regulated by bylaws.
If an action was brought before a Federal Court on any of
these cases, the person who had neglected to perform his
engagements could not be compelled to do it; for a support
of ministers, or building of places of worship might be
construed into a religious establishment.
the charter of Rhode Island, no religion could be established
by law; he could give a history of the effects of such a
regulation; indeed the people were now enjoying the blessed
fruits of it. He hoped, therefore, the amendment would be
made in such a way as to secure the rights of conscience,
and a free exercise of the rights of religion, but not to
patronize those who professed no religion at all.
Madison thought, if the word national was inserted before
religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen.
He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain
a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a
religion to which they would compel others to conform. He
thought if the word national was introduced, it would point
directly to the object it was intended to prevent.
Livermore was not satisfied with that amendment; but he
did not wish them to dwell long on the subject. He thought
it would be better if it was altered, and made to read in
this manner, that Congress shall make no laws touching religion,
or infringing the rights of conscience.
Gerry did not like the term national, proposed by the gentleman
from Virginia, and he hoped it would not be adopted by the
House. It brought to his mind some observations that had
taken place in the conventions at the time they were considering
the present constitution. It had been insisted upon by those
who were called antifederalists, that this form of Government
consolidated the Union; the honorable gentleman's motion
shows that he considers it in the same light. Those who
were called antifederalists at that time complained that
they had injustice done them by the title, because they
were in favor of a Federal Government, and the others were
in favor of a national one; the federalists were for ratifying
the constitution as it stood, and the others not until amendments
were made. Their names then ought not to have been distinguished
by federalists and antifederalists, but rats and antirats.
Madison withdrew his motion, but observed that the words
"no national religion shall be established by law," did
not imply that the Government was a national one; the question
was then taken on Mr. Livermore's motion, and passed in
the affirmative, thirty-one for, and twenty against it.
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