Civil Liberties

Antidisestablishmentarianism in Action


Visitors to Philadelphia's National Constitution Center should pop into a small, dim room off the main lobby to see an extraordinary collection of documents about religious liberty. They'll also get a chance to see that famous spelling bee word, antidisestablishmentarianism, in action. The exhibit (which runs through January) showcases the evolution of our understanding of the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.

While rare early copies of the Bill of Rights and George Washington's first Thanksgiving Proclamation are show-stealers, a far more prosaic document illuminates the everyday mixing of church and state that was common in the Founding era. When he was appointed commander of Virginia's military forces, George Washington was required to sign an anti-Catholic "test oath" disclaiming belief in such doctrines as transubstantiation, the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. We've come a long way, baby.