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Article Six of the United States Constitution
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Article Six of the United States Constitution says that the Constitution, and any laws or treaties the United States might make, will be the most important laws in the United States. It also says that the United States will pay debts from before the Constitution was written. Finally, it says that members of the United States government have to swear that they will obey the Constitution. However, they will never have to swear that they follow a certain religion.
All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
The first part of Article Six says that the United States will still honor and pay all of its debts from before the Constitution was written. The Article says that "these debts are as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as [they were] under the Confederation [governed by the Articles of Confederation]."
The second clause of Article Six is often called the "Supremacy Clause." It says that these things are the "supreme" laws in the United States – the most powerful and most important laws in the country:
- The Constitution
- Laws made by the United States government
- Treaties made by the United States government
- State courts have to follow them
- States' constitutions are not as powerful as the United States Constitution
- If there is a disagreement between a federal law and a state law, the federal law is more important. The federal law must be used.
- Even the President of the United States has to obey the Constitution.
- No state court could rule that a person could not practice their religion
- No state constitution could say that certain religions are illegal in that state
- No state could make a law that said people could only practice certain religions
- Even the President could not refuse to hire people for his government because they don't practice his religion
Later in history
A few Supreme Court decisions helped make the Supremacy Clause clearer.
The first important case was Marbury v. Madison (1803). In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that it had the power to review state courts' decisions, if those decisions seemed like they did not follow the supreme law. This power is called judicial review.
In Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816), the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was more powerful than the state Supreme Courts. In the case, the Virginia Supreme Court said that a United States Supreme Court decision was unconstitutional, and told all of the Virginia state courts not to obey it. The United States Supreme Court ruled that it had the final say in legal issues that had to do with federal laws – not the state courts. If a state court and the United States Supreme Court disagree, the Supreme Court is the supreme law of the land.
Three years later, in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot control federal institutions. The state of Maryland had tried to tax a federal bank. The Supreme Court ruled that states cannot tax government property. This was another example of a case where the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the "supreme laws of the land" were more powerful than state laws or court decisions.
In 1824, the Supreme Court ruled on Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). The state of New York had given Aaron Ogden a monopoly over the steamboat business in the Hudson River. However, Thomas Gibbons got the same power from a federal government permit. The Supreme Court decided that the federal permit was more powerful than the state monopoly. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall wrote:
[T]he Constitution is the supreme law. The appropriate application of that part of the clause which [gives] the same supremacy [to] laws and treaties, is to [make sure] acts of the State legislatures ... do not [overstep] their powers, [or] interfere with, or are contrary to the laws of Congress, ... or some treaty made under the authority of the United States. In every such case, the act of Congress, or the treaty, is supreme; and the law of the State ... must yield to it.
Finally, in Reid v. Covert (1957), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no branch of the United States government can be given extra powers by a treaty, if those powers were not given to it by the Constitution. This case showed that the Constitution could even limit the power of treaties, and was truly the supreme law of the land.
The last part of Article Six is sometimes called the "No Religious Test Clause."
This clause says that people have to swear to support the Constitution if they are:
- Members of the United States Congress
- Members of state legislatures
- The President, Vice President, and the people who work for them
Congress gets to decide the exact words in this oath to support the Constitution. However, in this oath, they cannot require a "religious test." This means they cannot make a person swear that they follow a certain religion.
Under this clause, Congress may include the words "so help me God" in the oath. However, a person cannot be required to say those words. A person cannot be required to swear or say anything about religion in order to work for the United States government.
Later in history
During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy was running for President. If he were elected, he would be the first Catholic president ever. Many people were unsure that Americans should elect a Catholic as president. This raised the question of whether Americans – not their government – were requiring a "religious test" for their President. Would they require that a President be a Protestant in order to get elected?
On September 12, 1960, Kennedy talked about this issue directly in his Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association:
I [do not] look with favor upon those who would work to [violate] Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even [indirectly].
[C]ontrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected ... I will make my decision [based on] what my conscience tells me to be in the national [best] interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or [orders]. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
... I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith; nor do I [plan] to [reject] either my views or my church in order to win this election.[I]f this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.
Kennedy won the election.
- "The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription". Washington, D.C.: United States National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html.
- Sikkenga, Jeffrey (2012). "Debt Assumption". The Heritage Foundation. http://www.heritage.org/constitution/#!/articles/6/essays/132/debt-assumption.
- Lawson, Gary (2012). "The Supremacy Clause". The Heritage Foundation. http://www.heritage.org/constitution/#!/articles/6/essays/133/supremacy-clause.
- McBride, Alex (December 2006). "Landmark Cases: Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816)". Educational Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/democracy/landmark_martin.html.
- Marshall, Chief Justice John (March 2, 1824). "GIBBONS v. OGDEN, 22 U.S. 1 (1824)". United States National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=24&page=transcript.
- Bradley, Gerard V. (2012). "Religious Test". The Heritage Foundation. http://www.heritage.org/constitution/#!/articles/6/essays/135/religious-test.
- Lowman, G.E. (1960). "Should a Roman Catholic Be President?". Prophecies for the Times. G.E. Lowman. pp. 83-89. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKCAMP1960-1020-024.aspx. Archived at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
- John F. Kennedy (September 12, 1960). Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (Speech). Texas, United States. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/ALL6YEBJMEKYGMCntnSCvg.aspx.
- Dudley, Robert L.; Shiraev, Eric (2008). Counting Every Vote: The Most Contentious Elections in American History. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books. p. 83. .