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.

I don't understand the part marked in bold.

Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. So congress should not make a law which prohibits the freedom of religion. I get it.

But Congress shall make a law which respects an establishment of religion. Doesn't "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" mean congress should not make a law that respects religion because there's "no" in it??

  • 52
    Even native speakers have trouble interpreting the language used in the constitution. The early sections are especially problematic because the usage and meaning of words is different than today.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 6, 2018 at 19:14
  • 14
    I'm surprised to see JimmyJames' comment get upvoted so much. I don't think native speakers really have that much trouble interpreting the language, and most of the usage and meaning has not changed that much. (There are some changes, of course.) The problems with interpretation, IMO, come from people's politics, not their language.
    – stangdon
    Mar 8, 2018 at 12:25
  • 3
    @stangdon You make an important point - "respecting an establishment of sth" isn't text you're likely to read these days, unless what you're reading is purposefully following the same pattern as the 1st Amendment. However, the meaning of the individual words aren't difficult to understand. Compare them to middle English texts like "Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer, / With rych reuel ory3t and rechles merþes." and it becomes more clear that fluent speakers understand the words, it's the intent behind them that is the problem.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 8, 2018 at 22:25
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    @ColleenV I think that's why JimmyJames' comment says "...interpreting the language...". With your Middle English example it might as well be Klingon: you can't understand the very words (I can't at least, but granted, I'm not native), so you can't really read it (I'm not sure I'd even know which phonemes to use). I think Jimmy meant that, even tough you can understand each word individually, you can't understand the meaning of the sentence. As a matter of fact, I do understand the constitution, maybe because I'm familiar with legal texts.
    – xDaizu
    Mar 9, 2018 at 13:06
  • @xDaizu I think we can understand the sentence pretty well, just not all of the implications of it in context. The meaning and usage of the words hasn't changed so much as to make them unintelligible. The problem is we get too tangled up in the politics to look at the literal meaning and be content. This is an English site, so we really do need to try to stay focused on the language as much as we can.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 9, 2018 at 13:10

7 Answers 7


The confusing term seems to be "respecting". This is a somewhat different meaning of "respect", that is still in common use:

respecting (prep):

  1. in view of : considering
  2. with respect to : concerning

The first amendment states that Congress shall pass no law related to (or with regard to) the establishment of a (state) religion. This has been interpreted by the courts to have many consequent effects, mainly that no governing body in the country can write law supporting any one religion over another religion. More information

The term "respecting" is mostly limited to legal documents, or formal essays/articles. Examples:

Respecting the salaries of the governors of states, the constitution made no provision.

The speculations of the fathers respecting the origin and course of the world seek to combine Christian ideas of the Deity with doctrines of Greek philosophy.

Authentic information respecting the great valley of the Ganges was supplied by Megasthenes, an ambassador sent by Seleucus, who reached the remote city of Patali-putra, the modern Patna.


"Respecting" can be used to mean "having/showing respect for", but most commonly in the related term "self-respecting"

No self-respecting gentleman would go outside on a sunny English day without an umbrella.

In most cases, if you want to say "having respect for" use that, the verb "to respect", or the adjective "respectful (of)".

He was respectful of her concerns, and did not press her for an immediate decision.

Nor did the clergy much respect the official standards of the Church.

They had little respect for tradition, flaunting contemporary standards to produce art intended to shock the viewer.

(Edit) There is also the related term "respective":

respective (adj): belonging or relating to each one of the people or things that have been mentioned, not the same or shared : separate

This is commonly used to talk about things that are similar but separately related to some other similar set of things:

As the sun set, each of the children hurried to their respective homes.

The chronic controversies between the courts of common law and the Admiralty Court as to the limits of their respective jurisdictions reached an acute stage.

As Flater's comment mentions, the term "irrespective (of)" implies the opposite of "respecting": not taking (something) into account; regardless of.

Irrespective of their political differences, the candidates agreed that the economy was the most important issue facing the country.

  • 9
    The most common way you can still see "to respect" (meaning "to regard" like in the First Amendment) used is in irrespective (of), essentially meaning "unrelated (to)".
    – Flater
    Mar 6, 2018 at 15:52
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    irrespective is not great. Regardless of is better.
    – Lambie
    Mar 6, 2018 at 16:39
  • 35
    "with respect to" is a common contemporary alternative that may be clearer to a modern audience. Mar 6, 2018 at 17:53
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    "related to" is too weak. A law "Respecting" or "concerning" something means that that is (part of) the subject or contents of the law. "Respecting" is somewhat weaker than "containing"; but stronger than "related" (a law which is about something else could still be "related" to te establishment of religion, e.g. by mentioning it as an example).. Mar 7, 2018 at 12:52
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    Note: as a native spanish, this meaning of "respect" (as in "respecting" or "in respect to") has always come very natural to me, since it sounds so similar to "respecto" (not sure if there's a connection). I didn't even know this meaning was somehow obscure for native speakers in favor of the other meaning (to show respect), wich would be "respeto" (no c!) in spanish. Both words seem connected by the concept of "consideration", which both meanings allude to
    – xDaizu
    Mar 9, 2018 at 13:13

The bolded phrase in your question is expressed in an archaic negative - it is saying that Congress is prohibited from making any laws that promote an Established Religion (which is a phrase commonly used to mean the same thing as “an official church”). If the Constitution were first being written today, it might have been written as “Congress shall not make a law declaring or supporting the declaration of an official church”.

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    It's also useful to know that this particular part of the First Amendment is often referred to as the Establishment Clause. This is enough of a standard phrase that you'll often see it used in newspaper articles without any further explanation. Mar 6, 2018 at 15:20
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    Upvoted. Contrary to the other answers the key word is "establishment" not "respecting". See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Establishment_Clause
    – user20637
    Mar 6, 2018 at 20:45
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    That wording has several problems, such as having to interpret how the "or" distributes, and the multiple meanings of "declaration". Mar 6, 2018 at 21:57
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    I would add to the answer that the Church of England was (and still is) established in England because it's the state's church. Americans didn't want that kind of state church.
    – Pere
    Mar 6, 2018 at 22:45
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    @user20637 The key word of the Amendment may well be "establishment", but the key to the asker's problem is the interpretation of "respecting". Mar 7, 2018 at 0:00

In this case, "respecting" is equivalent to "with respect to" or "concerning":

with/in respect to
In reference or relation to; concerning:


So this phrase may be understood as

Congress shall make no law concerning an establishment of religion ...

or, more simply,

Congress shall make no law about an establishment of religion ...

In other words, don't make laws about religion, especially those that would promulgate an "official" religion for the country, as some other countries have.

Incidentally, the clause you refer to is called the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and has been well argued and interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States since the country was founded. Ultimately, it means what SCOTUS says it means, but at least its meaning does not generate as much heat and partisanship as certain parts of the Second Amendment.

  • "In other words, don't make laws about religion" No, it is explicitly only about the "establishment of religion." Congress's powers about religion generally come elsewhere. Mar 8, 2018 at 6:57

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.

Approximate simplification:

Congress can't make laws about:

  • religion;

  • what people can say, write, or publish;

  • people forming groups or meeting;

  • people making demands of the government when it's done something wrong.

The First Amendment was written in an older style of English. This English is still valid today, though a native English speaker would likely choose a different wording.

It's worth noting that American law is heavily based in historical documents like the US Constitution. In order to maintain consistency, the English in American laws tends to lean toward older English and classical structuring.

This is sometimes called "legalese":

Legal English is the type of English as used in legal writing. In general, a legal language is a formalized language based on logic rules which differs from the ordinary natural language in vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and semantics, as well as other linguistic features, aimed to achieve consistency, validity, completeness and soundness, while keeping the benefits of a human-like language such as intuitive execution, complete meaning and open upgrade. However, Legal English has been referred to as a "sublanguage", as legal English differs from ordinary English. A specialized use of certain terms and linguistic patterns governs the teaching of legal language. Thus, "we study legal language as a kind of second language, a specialized use of vocabulary, phrases, and syntax that helps us to communicate more easily with each other".

-"Legal English", Wikipedia [links and references omitted]

  • 1
    Not just American law. This is true of the law of all English speaking countries. Note that "legalese" is odd not only because of archaic usage, but also because it is full of "jargon" (terms of art that are well understood by practitioners but are likely to be misunderstood by outsiders). Mar 7, 2018 at 12:51
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    Actually, Congress can make laws concerning religions. The Edmunds Act prohibited polygamy, and was squarely aimed at the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons, in everyday language). What Congress cannot do is to "establish" any particular church or sect as the official church of the US. In practice, the subject is so ticklish (if you restrict one church, are you not effectively promoting the others?) that religions are largely unregulated, and problems with doctrine are dealt with as individual offenses rather than institutional. But that is not necessarily unchanging. Mar 7, 2018 at 14:02
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    @WhatRoughBeast I think that you're getting a bit far into politics; the above was meant to be an "approximate simplification" largely because it is a complex issue which can lead even legal scholars into long debates (also, you seemed to focus on the establishment part, skipping over the free-exercise part). For beginning English learners, it'd seem prudent to simplify things to give them the gist of what the text is trying to say.
    – Nat
    Mar 7, 2018 at 14:10

The other answers seem complicated, and I think this can be easy. The first amendment says that the US cannot make a law that says everybody has to have the same religion. It doesn't mean that congress can't make any law having to do with religion, it just means that everyone should be free to practice their beliefs. It was included because the people involved in this discussion were largely English. In England for a very long time there was an official rule that if you were English you had to be Catholic. Then Protestant. Then Catholic. It was all very confusing, so the founders of the US decided that it should be a separate matter, and not for the new government to decide. So they put it into the Constitution.

  • 1
    It's about more than just convenience. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. The Bill of Rights (that is, Amendments 1 through 10 of the U.S. Constitution) describes many legal rights and prohibits the government from violating them. Historical details: "Separation of church and state in the United States" (Wikipedia)
    – jkdev
    Mar 8, 2018 at 1:26
  • @jkdev I never said anything about convenience. I think fundamental human right can be argued (unless you are stating a certain document has defined it that way). There are many countries where the ruling party defines acceptable religions. And if you look at the history of Henry VIII reign, there were a lot of changes during a very brief time.
    – Stacy
    Mar 10, 2018 at 3:03

another way to phrase this is with a single word: "about".

The phrase quoted in the question is:

  • "respecting an establishment of religion"

Andrew's answer mentions phrases like:

  • "with respect to an establishment of religion"
  • "respective of an establihsment of religion",

An even shorter alternative is:

  • "about an establishment of religion"


A lot of the answers here deal with the first part of this, but not much about the 2nd part of the question, so I thought I'd jump in, here:

The first part: Saying "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" means they can't establish an official religion, and that is why it is known as the Establishment Clause. This was addressed pretty well in other posts.

The second part:

Doesn't "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" mean congress should not make a law that respects religion because there's "no" in it??

This seems, to me, to be asking:

  • Why it is that Congress can allow people to worship at a church at all?
  • Why it is that religion is even allowed to exist, legally?
  • Why it is that, if a person is religious, laws were allowed to be written to protect them (from being discriminated against, for example).

In other words, why is religion protected, if Congress can't pass laws "respecting" it (which here, can be read with either definition for "respecting" I give below)?

Well, others did clarify the definition of respecting, that it means "concerning", here - not "in honor or reverence of" - but the key word in the sentence is "establishment", not "respecting", here, because, as I said, you could put either of those definitions in that last sentence and it still makes for a good question. The previous answers given didn't specifically say that "establishment" was the key word - they honed in on "respecting" and mentioned it was the "Establishment Clause", but didn't say anything about the reason why laws that "respect" ("honor" or "concern") religion are legal. And fortunately, regardless of which meaning you use, there's a single answer: Yes, Congress can't establish a religion, but the 14th Amendment says everyone deserves "equal protection under the law", regardless of a religious belief, gender, race, etc. This is what makes Congress have to "respect" (read "honor") a person's religion, and why those laws that do so are legal, and in fact, are just re-affirmations of the 14th Amendment.

And I didn't realize this until I did some more research, but there's actually some controversy as far as how far the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause goes to protect religion, identified in this good, scholarly, and well-researched report from Northwestern University: https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1212&context=facultyworkingpapers

In that report, they call attention to the fact that apparently some cases have been decided (incorrectly, they assert) on the difference of how many rights religious people had in 1868 (when the 14th Amendment was passed) vs. those rights of people in other discrimination lawsuits that weren't identified by the court until after 1868, as to who has more credibility to say they were discriminated vs. who has not been. They claim the 14th Amendment protects those in the religious class just as equally as those in a gender or racial one. And they bring up the Blaine Amendment issues, where a state typically has a constitutional amendment in their state constitution that can be read so as to deny funding to private schools based on that school being a religious one, in order to avoid the appearance of the state establishing a religion, which seems to acknowledge that the 1st Amendment has precedence over the 14th when it comes to a possible perception by someone of the government's establishment of a religion. It may help to understand where some of the legal precedents have come from, with respect to why, legally, laws are written to generally uphold (respect/honor) religious practices, so long as they do not mean the government can be perceived as establishing them.

More about the Blaine Amendment: http://education.findlaw.com/curriculum-standards-school-funding/what-is-a-blaine-amendment.html

  • 5
    While this is a nice answer if the question were about US law, it's not a very good answer to the English question.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 6, 2018 at 23:04
  • Also: no, Congress does not have to "honor" anyone's religion; that's not what respecting means in the context of the First Amendment.
    – stangdon
    Mar 8, 2018 at 12:28
  • @ColleenV It's to establish that it's about not "establishing" a religion, because it's not about what the OP thought it would be about: "respecting" it. I was trying to emphasize that no matter how you read "respecting", it doesn't matter.
    – vapcguy
    Mar 8, 2018 at 18:43
  • @stangdon You misread my post, then. I said that Congress has to honor all religions because of the 14th Amendment, not the 1st. And that's in the sense that they pass & uphold rules, laws, regulations regarding the fact you cannot discriminate on the basis of a religion - in a sense, condoning it while still not establishing a state-sponsored one.
    – vapcguy
    Mar 8, 2018 at 18:45

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