The Constitution is a written document that serves as the organic (i.e., basic) law of the United States. The original Constitution was written in 1787, and became effective when the ninth state (New Hampshire) ratified the document on June 21, 1788. In 1791 the states approved ten amendments to the Constitution. These ten amendment are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. The first of these amendments deals, in part, with the issue of the power of government over religion and, hence, has become the focal point of the debate over church/state separation.
While the interpretation of the First Amendment is obviously crucial to the separation debate, we want to emphasize here the importance of the unamended Constitution to the debate. Briefly, the purpose of the Constitution was to specify the powers of the federal government, and to distribute those powers among the three branches of government (the executive, the legislative, and the judicial). As we document elsewhere, the assumption of the framers of the Constitution was that the federal government could exercise only those powers delegated to it by the Constitution (i.e., the federal government could not make up its own powers as it went along). By default, undelegated powers were assumed to be reserved to the states. This arrangement is called federalism, and it is the philosophical basis of the American system of government.
One of the things at issue in the separation debate is whether the original Constitution gave the federal government any power over religion. In particular, we note that, if the Constitution delegated no power over religion, the question of whether the First Amendment bans, eg., aid to religion, is moot. If there is no power to aid, no aid can be given, regardless of whether there is a ban. Accomodationists, in other words, must first demonstrate that the original Constitution delegates power to the federal government over religion before their claims about the First Amendment are of any significance. This issue is the focus of our discussion in the sections of our web page entitled federalism and absence of delegated powers.
A second issue is whether the First Amendment can itself be interpreted as a grant of power to the federal government. If the First Amendment can be so read, then it might confer some power to the federal government over religion that is not conferred in the original Constitution. We discuss this issue in our section of this web page devoted to the grammar of the establishment clause.