Religious Freedom 101: Establishing the aspiration of religious freedom in the United States

Written by William C. Duncan

March 6, 2020

This is the first installment in a series about the history of religious freedom in the United States. 

Key Points

  • The struggle to establish and maintain religious freedom in the United States dates back to before the nation’s founding.
  • Early colonists were the first to test religious freedom in practice. This included challenges for most religious sects, including Puritans, Catholics, Baptists and of course Quakers (whose religious beliefs included pacifism during a time like the Revolutionary War).
  • These challenges brought important advances for religious freedom in early America like Virginia’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786, written by Thomas Jefferson.
  • In 1791, the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights was ratified, including protections for the free exercise of religion, codifying the aspiration that government should not limit people of faith to act according to their beliefs.
  • The establishment of religious freedom in America has always taken a path of stumbling progress.
  • The next installment in Religious Freedom 101 will examine the WWII era.

Religious freedom has been a national aspiration from before the country was founded. Yet, just like the nation’s aspirations for racial equality and gender equality, our nation’s history shows uneven progress. That we have engaged this struggle, with at times miserably poor success, tells us something about the value we have placed on that aspiration.

Establishing the Aspiration – in the Colonies

Colonial history is famously understood, at least in part, as a struggle for religious autonomy. The lives of the colonists themselves illustrate how many of the foundations of religious freedom – freedom of association, religious toleration and the separation of church and state – began centuries before they became part of the American Constitution.

In November 1620, William Bradford stepped aboard the Mayflower with 34 of his fellow Puritans to seek a better life in the unknown wilderness of North America. As a teenager in 1607, Bradford had been forced to flee England, his native country, for Holland because he had committed treason along with other Puritans by separating from the Church of England. When an opportunity to build a Puritan community in the New World came – a community governed by a separation of church and state, but not state from God – Bradford accepted it. After helping found Plymouth Colony, he governed it for the next 30 years. Plymouth and other Puritan colonies would eventually form Massachusetts.

More than a decade after Bradford boarded the Mayflower, Lord Baltimore – also known as Cecelius Calvert – sought to free oppressed minority Catholics from their plight living in England. English Catholics who survived the anti-Catholic violence of the 1500s lived under laws that banned their religious rites – such as marriage by a Catholic priest – and a culture that viewed them with suspicion for following the Pope. In 1632, Baltimore received a royal charter to form a new colony called Maryland that he hoped could serve as a Catholic refuge in America. In 1649, the colonial legislature of Maryland passed a law of religious toleration spanning Christian faiths.

In 1670, William Penn was arrested in London for speaking publicly in defiance of an English law banning public meetings of more than five people – an attempt to suppress worship by any but the Church of England. Penn was not new to religious discrimination – having been imprisoned two years earlier for his religious beliefs as a Quaker. After defending in court his rights as an Englishman – what we call civil rights today – Penn was eventually released. In 1682, when Penn received land in America as payment of a debt owed to his father, the colony he established (Pennsylvania) welcomed settlers of any faith and granted them freedom to associate and worship as they chose.

As the lives of founding colonists illustrate, the colonial commitment to religious freedom was real, even as they struggled to extend religious toleration to others. This struggle even led to new colonies being founded in pursuit of religious freedom, like Rhode Island, where Roger Williams went after being expelled from Massachusetts in 1635 over religious differences.

The aspiration to religious freedom continued as tensions between the colonies and England intensified. As the Revolutionary War got underway in 1775, colonial officials in New York ordered a military draft – which presented a challenge to the Quakers, whose religious beliefs include a commitment to pacifism. New York’s political leaders stumbled their way through this challenge – some Quakers were drafted, some refused to serve, and penalties for Quakers not complying with these generally applicable laws were typically lenient. Ultimately, in New York’s first state constitution in 1777, Quakers were exempted from service in the militia – an early indicator of the value placed on religious practice.

Even where colonial policies fell short of toleration, such as the jailing of Baptist preachers in Virginia from the 1760s to the 1770s, the debate over these practices led to important advances. In 1786, Virginia’s Assembly enacted an Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and shepherded to passage by James Madison, which ended legal penalties for those who refused to financially support or attend the state church.

Establishing the Aspiration – in the Constitution

The debate over ratification of the proposed United States Constitution in 1787 resulted in calls for a Bill of Rights that would enumerate limitations on the power of the new national government. Religious freedom was prominently featured in the recommended amendments enclosed with the ratifications of Virginia and New York.

Virginia’s recommendation read: “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men have an equal, natural, and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established, by law, in preference to others.”

When the first Congress drafted the proposals that would make up the Bill of Rights in 1789, those amendments were given a formal place in the nation’s governing charter.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “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.”

The First Amendment’s limitation on the new government’s ability to proscribe religious practice (and similar state constitutional provisions) codified an aspiration that governments should not limit the ability of people of faith and their religious organizations to act on their beliefs, just as with the Quakers and Baptists, even if those actions appeared to be at odds with government policies or majority preferences.

What’s Next for Religious Freedom? 

In our next installment, we will explore the period between the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and World War II. During this time there was an ongoing struggle with religious freedom for both dominant religions and minority religions. There were many failures with tragic human consequences, but we can also trace a path staggering forward in the aspiration of religious freedom in America.

Click the following links to read the rest of the series: part 2, part 3 and part 4.


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