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U.S. News
I: Freedom of speech, assembly, religion, the press and to petition the government

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

FIRST AMENDMENT (1791)

The sweep and breadth of the First Amendment, confirming basic freedoms from speech to religion, encompassed long-ingrained beliefs among the colonists who created the United States. Several states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, already had "Declarations of Rights," guaranteeing these freedoms. The Bill of Rights grew naturally from this long-standing assumption that people are, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights."

Bill Gazzo, 81, of Hampton, was furious when he got his new property tax assessment in 2000. After an appeal, Allegheny County cut his assessment. Then, for the next year, it rose again. That's when he picked up a sign and headed Downtown to the City-County Building with a few dozen others. Gazzo had never taken part in a demonstration before. "It was OK. It was a little noisy, cold. There were a lot of others." His assessment has since been rolled back to the 2001 level and he just got a letter from Allegheny County saying it will stay at that level until 2005. Did the picketing help? "I don't know. I hope it did. I think it helped." One catch: The Hampton School District has the legal power to challenge that assessment reduction. If it does, says Gazzo, "Then maybe I'll go down and protest that." It's called the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.


One Sunday in 1952, a Scottish immigrant named George Docherty mounted the pulpit at a Washington, D.C., church and gave a sermon that spoke to his freedom of religion and resonates today in the debate over freedom of expression. Docherty worried when his son, Garth, came home from school and explained the Pledge of Allegiance to his parents. "I noticed there was no mention of God to it at all," Docherty recalls. When he heard that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was to attend his church, Docherty unleashed his sermon pleading for God's inclusion in the pledge. Within a year, Congress, acting on a request by Eisenhower, a Protestant, and a campaign by the Catholic Knights of Columbus, inserted the words "under God" into the text. In June, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court in California ruled that the words violated the First Amendment rights of an 8-year-old girl whose father brought suit. The furor has left the 91-year-old Docherty, now living in retirement in Huntingdon County, fascinated by the turns of history.


While some of the Founding Fathers worried a freedom of religion clause would open the door to non-Christians, others embraced the idea of tolerance. One of them was Tench Coxe, a Philadelphia merchant who served in the Continental Congress. Coxe wrote in his Notes Concerning the United States of America "... their own modes of worship and of faith equally belong to all the worshippers of God, of whatever church, sect or denomination." Two months ago, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Pittsburgh Muslims were free to worship undisturbed, protected by the same First Amendment that guards the rights of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church congregation that invited them to explain their beliefs and ways of worship.


Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.


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