Freedom of Religion in the United States

A Short History

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The First Amendment's free exercise clause was once, in the opinion of one founding father, the most important part of the Bill of Rights. "No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1809, "than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority."
Today, we tend to take it for granted — most church and state controversies deal more directly with the establishment clause — but the risk that federal and local government agencies may harass or discriminate against religious minorities (most visibly atheists and Muslims) remains.


Colonial Maryland passes the Religious Toleration Act, which could more accurately be characterized as an ecumenical Christian toleration act — as it still mandated the death penalty for non-Christians:

That whatsoever person or persons within this Province and the Islands thereunto helonging shall from henceforth blaspheme God, that is Curse him, or deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to be the son of God, or shall deny the holy Trinity the father son and holy Ghost, or the Godhead of any of the said three persons of the Trinity or the Unity of the Godhead, or shall use or utter any reproachfull speeches, words or language concerning the said Holy Trinity, or any of the said three persons thereof, shall be punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heires.

Still, the act's affirmation of Christian religious diversity and its prohibition on harassment of any conventional Christian denomination was relatively progressive by the standards of its time.


Rhode Island's new royal charter grants it permission "to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best bee maintained, and that among our English subjects. with a full libertie in religious concernments."


Article VI, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution outlaws the use of religious tests as a criterion for public office:

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.

This was a fairly controversial idea at the time and arguably remains so. Almost every president of the past hundred years has voluntarily sworn their oath of office on the Bible (Lyndon Johnson used John F. Kennedy's bedside missal instead), and the only president to publicly and specifically swear their oath on the Constitution rather than the Bible was John Quincy Adams. The only publicly non-religious person currently serving in Congress is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who identifies as agnostic.


James Madison proposes the Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of religion, speech, and protest.


In a letter addressed to Moses Seixas at Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, President George Washington writes:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

While the United States has never consistently lived up to this ideal, it remains a compelling expression of the free exercise clause's original objective.


The Treaty of Tripoli, signed between the United States and Libya, states that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion" and that "it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims]."


The Fourteenth Amendment, which would later be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court as justification for applying the free exercise clause to state and local governments, is ratified.


In Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court rules that laws banning polygamy do not violate the religious freedom of Mormons.


In Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that a statute requiring a license to solicit for religious purposes violated the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech as well as the First and 14th Amendments' guarantee of the right to the free exercise of religion.


In Welsh v. United States, the Supreme Court holds that exemptions for non-religious conscientious objectors may apply in cases where an objection to war is held "with the strength of traditional religious convictions." This suggests but does not explicitly state that the First Amendment's free exercise clause may protect strong beliefs held by non-religious people.


In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court rules in favor of a state law banning peyote despite its use in Indigenous religious ceremonies. In doing so, it affirms a narrower interpretation of the free exercise clause based on intent rather than effect.


Rutherford County chancellor Robert Morlew blocks construction on a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, citing public opposition. His ruling is successfully appealed, and the mosque opens a year later.

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Head, Tom. "Freedom of Religion in the United States." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, February 16). Freedom of Religion in the United States. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Freedom of Religion in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).