The First Amendment of the Constitution

The First Amendment of the Constitution expressly forbids Congress from creating any laws that abridge the freedom of speech and the press, from restricting or nationalizing religious practices and from preventing people to assemble and/or petition the government to address perceived grievances.

The portion which interests me the most of this Amendment is the Free Exercise Clause, which is purported to permit religious diversity so long as it does not interfere with national interests. Earlier during our history, this was a hypocritical assertion as many Native American children were placed into Christian boarding schools to undergo the process of Christianization and Americanization. (Smith, 2007) The Freedom of Religion Act in 1978 addressed these kinds of wrongs by legally validating Native American traditions. (Robinson, 2008)

Unfortunately, laws continue to exist which prevent Native Americans from exercising their beliefs. These laws effectively restrict religious practice in the manner that the First Amendment fears. For example, the eagle feather law was written with the intent to protect dwindling eagle populations while giving limited permit to use them in Native American customs. However, it means that only individuals able to prove their Native American ancestry are given the freedom to use them and therefore practice their religious rites freely. Those not officially recognized as such cite ‘paper genocide’. (Stokes, 2007)

Controversy also exists over the incorporation of Christian tradition into the fabric of nationalism within the United States, particularly with regards to the Pledge of Allegiance. Critics generally contend that the phrase “under God” violates the First Amendment. For example, atheists and polytheists find this phrase to be an unconstitutional endorsement of monotheism. (Herel, 2005)

The Second Amendment is a significantly murkier section of the Constitution. While it declares that “a well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free State” and that government is prohibited from infringing on the right to “keep and bear arms.” Due to its imprecise phraseology, the Second Amendment is the most contested amendment in matters of interpretation. What does it mean for a militia to be “well-regulated”? What does “keep and bear arms” mean?

There is much ambiguity as to whether “bear arms” was meant to be a figurative and euphemistic expression for military service or merely to fight, and this has been ruled as a practical interpretation several times by the courts. However, the word keep is subject to scrutiny. Opponents of gun control take this to be the literal entrustment of the right to possess weapons, but gun control advocates have noted that keep also means to “upkeep,” to engage in the maintenance of weaponry as any proper militia would. (Rowland, 2006)

Additionally, the “right of the people” complicates the pluralistic interpretation of “bear arms” even further. It may very well be the right of individuals to possess weaponry or the duty of individuals to maintain weaponry necessary to good militia. But “the right of the people” may also mean “a right of the state,” rather than an individual guarantee. (Holder, 1997)

Because the flexibility of the Second Amendment to accommodate an interpretation that promotes the individual possession of weaponry, and the government-regulated armament of its people, there may be little recourse for resolution than to address the Second Amendment itself. Unless legal means can be sought to redress the clumsy wording of the Second Amendment, the issues of gun control that are pertinent to it may never be resolved.

 

REFERENCES

Herel, S. (2005, September 14) Judge rules Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved May 17, 2008 from: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2005/09/14/MNpledge14.DTL

Smith, A. (2007) Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools. Amnesty International Magazine.  Retrieved May 17, 2008 from: http://www.amnestyusa.org/amnestynow/soulwound.html

Robinson, B. A. (2008, January 13) Native American Spirituality: Development of Aboriginal culture, absorption of native beliefs & practices, tribal recognition. Religious Tolerance.Org. Retrieved May 17, 2008 from: