So you can imagine that I became a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. I still am, but with two important and relatively recently acquired caveats. The first is that, since I became an originalist in the late 1990s, I have paid closer attention to the text of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although I have not written on the subject, nor studied it with the seriousness required to make me a true expert, I have come to believe that a constitutional bar on established churches is not a bar on all religious expression in the public sphere. For example, federal offices may close on Christmas, and prayers may be said in Congress before a session begins.
Perhaps more importantly, unlike the protections of the rights of freedom of speech, press, assembly and the free exercise of religion, I no longer think that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment concerned an individual right or liberty. Instead, as Justice Thomas has insisted, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” meant that Congress could neither establish a national religion nor “disestablish” a state religion.But also see Kurt Lash's classic 1995 Law Review article to the contrary. A taste from the abstract (I can't cut and paste from the PDF of the paper):
In this way, the succinctly-worded First Amendment is both antiestablishmentarian at the federal level and antidisestablishmentarian at the state level. And if it did not protect an individual right, the Establishment Clause did not refer to a right that was also among the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” which was secured against violation by state legislatures by the 14th Amendment. It was not, for example, among “the personal rights guarantied and secured by the first eight amendments of the Constitution” listed by Senator Jacob Howard in his speech to Congress explaining what the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects.
These conflicting approaches are linked by a common assumption: The historical period surrounding the adoption of the original Establishment Clause is directly relevant to determining the intent behind the incorporated Establishment Clause. Such an assumption, however, places the Founding cart before the Incorporation horse. Incorporation doctrine assumes that, at some point, the people changed their collective mind about the role of federalism in the protection of individual liberties; what was once left to state discretion is now restricted by the Fourteenth Amendment. But if the people changed their mind about the role of federalism in the promotion of individual liberty, perhaps they also changed their mind about the role of the Establishment Clause. In fact, we are not the first generation since Madison wrote his Memorial and Remonstrance to question the melding of the scepter and the cross. Obscured in the search for the Founders' intent are the subsequent struggles over the meaning and value of the Establishment Clause. In the years following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, state after state grappled with the issue of civil power over the subject of religion. Slowly, through a long series of cases and controversies, the idea evolved that citizens ought to be free from government-imposed religious establishments.Kurt Lash and Akhil Amar stress a particular dynamic forgotten in the search for "original meaning." If it's true that the Bill of Rights should be incorporated via the 14th Amendment -- and there is some good evidence for it (see the above link to Sen. Howard's speech) -- the "original" period for understanding the text is just after the Civil War, not during the original Founding.
In other words, it's not a late 18th Century understanding of the First Amendment; it's a mid-19th Century understanding that is the original one, at least pertaining to what is incorporated through the 14th Amendment.
The strange result -- and I can't remember how Amar grapples with it -- is that the First Amendment might have a different original understanding when applied directly to the Federal government (the late 18th Cen.) than as applied to states via the 14th (the mid-19th Cen. understanding).