The Bill of Rights—Why Was It Needed?
THE United States Bill of Rights has generated so much interest that in 50 years, some 700 books have been written about it—over 40 of them this year alone. Since 1991 is the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, people were even more interested in this subject. Yet, a poll revealed that 59 percent of the American public do not know what the Bill of Rights is.
When the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788, it allowed for amendments that would clarify positions not clearly defined in the Constitution. In 1791 the first ten amendments were added to the Constitution. These ten amendments had to do with liberty and became known as the Bill of Rights, for they guarantee to the people of the United States certain individual liberties.
Why did the United States need a Bill of Rights? It already had a strong Constitution that was expressly designed to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” for its citizens. Amendments were needed because the Constitution itself contained a glaring omission: There were no explicitly stated guarantees of individual rights.
The danger that most Americans feared was the tyranny of an intrusive national government that would usurp individual liberties, especially religious liberty. Historian Charles Warren sheds some light on the reason for this fear. He states:
“Men on all sides contended that, while the first object of a Constitution was to establish a government, its second object, equally important, must be to protect the people against the government. That was something which all history and all human experience had taught. . . .
“They had lived through bitter years, when they had seen governments, both royal and state, trample on the human rights which they and their ancestors in the colonies and in England had fought so hard to secure. . . . They knew that what government had done in the past, government might attempt in the future, whether its ruling power should be royal, state, or national . . . And they determined that, in America, such ruling power should be definitely curbed at the outset.”
It is true that various state constitutions had a limited bill of rights. But in reality a gruesome record reveals that deprivation of liberties was common in some of the states.
The colonists had transplanted many Old World practices to their New World. They persecuted minority groups and favored one religious group over another. So as soon as the news spread that a constitution was in the making, freedom-loving people began a movement for a national bill of rights that would guarantee their liberties and would separate Church from State.
If the people were in such fear of a centralized national government, why would they create it? After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, a new governmental system was needed. British rule in each colony came to an end. The states then adopted the Articles of Confederation, which joined them together into one nation—but in name only. As one historian put it: ‘Each desired to function as a separate unit, and jealousy and rivalry dominated the states’ dealings with one another.’
Hence, a national government was designed, made up of a supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary. These three branches functioned within a system of checks and balances to protect against dictatorial rule. The judicial branch in particular would be the protector and interpreter of constitutional rights. The Supreme Court would be the highest court of the land, and it became the interpreter of the law.
The first Congress, which convened in 1789, worked diligently on the promised Bill of Rights. The end result: ten amendments, or modifications, to the Constitution. These amendments became part of the Constitution 200 years ago, on December 15, 1791—a little more than three years after the Constitution itself was adopted.
Freedom of Religion
Of all the rights that the Bill of Rights guarantees, one of the most important is freedom of religion. The very first part of the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”
Note that this amendment is directed at Congress, not the state legislatures. But by the adoption of a Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the First Amendment was made applicable to the states also. It provides national constitutional protection against state violations of individual liberty.
The First Amendment prevents Congress from limiting freedom of religion. It also forbids Congress from setting up a church or making laws respecting a church. The clause ‘against establishment of religion by law’ was intended to erect, as Thomas Jefferson said, “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, both religious and secular, and this amendment would become a great constitutional issue in the future. The Founding Fathers knew that religious freedom profoundly affects civil liberties and vice versa.
Why Religion First?
It is noteworthy that the framers of the Bill of Rights chose to discuss the subject of religion first. Because of the centuries of religious strife in their homelands, an indelible imprint was left on their minds and hearts. They were determined to guard against repetition of those bitter struggles.
Freedom of religion was of primary importance because these men came from lands where there were statutes against apostasy, heresy, papacy, and profaneness and even against failure to support the Church financially. The penalties for failure to observe these statutes could be torture, prison, or death. Hence, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison passionately pleaded for separation of Church and State. No more government favor to priestly hierarchies or persecution for those who disagreed!
Some of Madison’s thoughts for keeping religion free of the State are recorded in a document entitled “A Memorial and Remonstrance.” He eloquently argues that a true religion did not need the support of law, that no one should be taxed to support any religion, and that persecution was the unavoidable result of government-established religion. Madison also warned that such establishment would retard Christian evangelizing.
Jefferson agreed with Madison and said that State support weakens the Christian religion: ‘Christianity flourished three hundred years without establishment. As soon as it was established under the emperor Constantine, it declined from its purity.’—Under God, by Garry Wills.
The Supreme Court and Religious Liberty
It has been 200 years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Its guarantees met 17th- and 18th-century social and political concerns. Did this same Bill of Rights meet the changing needs of citizens during the next 200 years? Yes, because it is said to have “enduring principles” that can be “adapted to various crises of human affairs.”
It is in the Supreme Court of the United States that the most important principles have been “adapted to various crises of human affairs,” especially in defining civil liberties. The Court has defined the freedoms on which the government must not encroach. As one historian indicated, the Court strikes the balance between organized society and individual right.
In the last 50 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken scores of cases on questions of freedom of speech and freedom of worship to the Supreme Court. The majority of these cases involved the right to disseminate opinions.a
The Bill of Rights may define liberty, but the book The Supreme Court and Individual Rights, by Elder Witt, has a heading that reads “Jehovah’s Witnesses: Definers of Freedom.” It states: “According to constitutional historian Robert F. Cushman, members of the sect brought some thirty major cases testing the principles of religious freedom to the Supreme Court beginning in 1938. In most of those cases, the Court ruled in their favor.”
But in 1940 the famous Minersville School District v. Gobitis decision went against Jehovah’s Witnesses on the flag-salute issue.b It upheld the compulsory flag-salute ceremony. Mr. Justice Frankfurter delivered the majority opinion and said that while ‘liberty and toleration and good sense’ favored the Gobitas family, he believed that judges should defer to the actions of the people’s elected representatives. In other words, politicians should be allowed to make laws that limit religious freedom. But this is exactly what the Bill of Rights prohibits.
Over 170 newspapers condemned the decision. Only a few supported it. Legal commentary almost universally opposed it. No wonder this decision was overturned within three years. Then, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Mr. Justice Jackson said for the Court: “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”c
Elections are determined by the majority. But the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority and the power of the State. Recently, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “In my view, the First Amendment was enacted precisely to protect the rights of those whose religious practices are not shared by the majority and may be viewed with hostility.” This is apparently what the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights also thought.
Will all nations adopt constitutions with a bill of rights? Most have not, and if history is any indicator, many will not. So to hope that all nations will get documents crafted to eliminate oppression and champion the rights of all will lead to disappointment.
A Government That Will Not Disappoint
Then, will the worldwide yearning for liberty, justice, and equality never be realized? On the contrary, we are closer to realizing the fulfillment of such ideals than ever before. Why so? Because we live in the time, about which Bible prophecy long ago spoke, when all oppressive governments will be removed and control of human affairs will be taken over by the government for which Jesus Christ taught his followers to pray—the Kingdom of God.—Matthew 6:9, 10.
The disastrous events that have taken place in our 20th century give proof that we are in the last days of this present system of things and that soon God’s heavenly Kingdom will take over rulership of the earth. (Matthew 24:3-13; 2 Timothy 3:1-5) As Bible prophecy foretold: “In the days of those kings [governments now existing] the God of heaven will set up a [heavenly] kingdom that . . . will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms [now existing], and it itself will stand to times indefinite.”—Daniel 2:44.
What will that mean for righthearted individuals? God’s Word promises: “Just a little while longer, and the wicked one will be no more . . . But the meek ones themselves will possess the earth, and they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace.” (Psalm 37:10, 11) Under God’s heavenly Kingdom, true peace and security will permanently come to this earth. Then, and only then, will genuine liberty, justice, equality, and international brotherhood be realized throughout the earth.
a See the article “The United States Constitution and Jehovah’s Witnesses,” appearing in the October 22, 1987, issue of Awake!
b In the court records, “Gobitas” was misspelled.
c In the court records, “Barnett” was misspelled.