Founding Father and U.S. President James Madison is often called the “Father of the Constitution”, having written most of it at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He then wrote over one-third of the Federalist Papers, essays that were intended to sway public opinion to ratifying the new Constitution.
Significantly, Madison has often also been referred to as a primary source for the separation of church and state. He, and others, has been used to justify acts such as removal of prayers in schools, or limiting religious expression by teachers in public schools. Those court decisions have had the effect of chilling free speech in the classroom, at least in regards to religion.
Madison certainly came out in opposition of anything that directed tax monies from taxpayers to go directly to churches. For example, there was a move in Virginia in 1784-85 to create a special tax to pay ministers of churches. Eventually the popular bill let each taxpayer decide which church should receive his share of the tax. Madison, a Virginian, saw problems with this down the road, and didn’t think the government had any business directing church funding. He opposed it vigorously, even working to get the bill’s principal supporter elected governor so he could not vote for the bill.
But believing that Government should not be involved in religion is the polar opposite of Government prohibiting freedom of religion, or more distinctly, the prohibition of the expression of religion. Madison apparently believed Government should not be involved in religion (though if you look at the context of the culture and times in which he lived, he would have never dreamed of creating a government that promoted a vacuum of religion). But he also did not believe in Government prohibiting the free exercise of religion. As Virginians considered whether or not to ratify the U. S. Constitution he wrote, some suggested he include a clause in it to establish the protection of religion. He argued it already did protect it:
Fortunately for this commonwealth, a majority of the people are decidedly against any exclusive establishment–I believe it to be so in the other states. There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation. I can appeal to my uniform conduct on this subject, that I have warmly supported religious freedom.
Even the tiniest little bit of ”intermeddling” would be a “flagrant usurpation.” Merriam-Webster defines “usurpation” as “to seize and hold (as office, place, or powers) in possession by force or without right.” If government interfered with religion at all, it would be a most flagrant seizure and taking of power, without right, and by force! He was saying, literally, that government would take the place that it had no right to take—the place of power to determine or limit religious expression.
Furthermore, he pointed out that even a bill of rights would not protect people from being taxed to outright support certain religions:
Is a bill of rights a security for religion? Would the bill of rights, in this state, exempt the people from paying for the support of one particular sect, if such sect were exclusively established by law? If there were a majority of one sect, a bill of rights would be a poor protection for liberty. Happily for the states, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.
In his mind, there was never any doubt that men would be able to freely discuss and take part in religion as they wished. He never even mentions those who were outside religion as having the right to supersede and direct those who were practicing religion. And with a multiplicity of sects—diverse groups of believers in different denominations—freedom of religion would be guaranteed by the sheer numbers of different churches, with no sect taking precedence over other groups. But others wished to see freedom of religion clearly delineated in the American government, and so it became part of the U.S. Bill of Rights as the First Amendment. As the First Amendment has been twisted in the last 50 years to enforce the limitation of the freedom of expression of religion, Madison may been right in that even an official government recognition of religious freedom in the form of a bill of rights would not be enough to protect the freedom to express religion.
Virginia Ratifying Convention:
Madison’s Speech at the Ratifying Convention
James Madison, Virginia Ratifying Convention
12 June 1788Papers 11:130–31
The Founders’ Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Religion), Document 49
The University of Chicago Press
The Papers of James Madison. Edited by William T. Hutchinson et al. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962–77 (vols. 1–10); Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977–(vols. 11–).