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Textualism, Human rights texts, First Amendment, Founders, Religious freedom, State Constitutions, Congress


This Article peels through these layers of founding documents before exploring the final sixteen words of the First Amendment religion clauses. Part I explores the founding generation’s main teachings on religious freedom, identifying the major principles that they held in common. Part II sets out a few representative state constitutional provisions on religious freedom created from 1776 to 1784. Part III reviews briefly the actions by the Continental Congress on religion and religious freedom issued between 1774 and 1789. Part IV touches on the deprecated place of religious freedom in the drafting of the 1787 United States Constitution. Part V reviews the state ratification debates about the 1787 Constitution and introduces the religious freedom amendments that they proposed to the First Congress tasked with drafting new federal rights language. Part VI combs through all the surviving records of the First Congress’ drafts and debates on what became the First Amendment. Part VII parses the final sixteen words of the religion clauses and sifts through what’s clear and not so clear about the final words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” The Conclusion distills my main findings about the original understanding of the First Amendment and their implications for originalists today.

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Brigham Young University Law Review