DIRECTOR, RELIGIOUS FREEDOM EDUCATION PROJECT
Thursday, December 26, 2002
Written for Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education. Copyright
1991, Council for the Advancement of Citizenship and the Center for Civic
Education. Updated and reprinted by permission.
From the Colonial era to the present, religions and religious beliefs have
played a significant role in the political life of the United States. Religion
has been at the heart of some of the best and some of the worst movements in
American history. The guiding principles that the framers intended to govern the
relationship between religion and politics are set forth in Article VI of the
Constitution and in the opening 16 words of the First Amendment of the Bill of
Rights. Now that America has expanded from the largely Protestant pluralism of
the 17th century to a nation of some 3,000 religious groups, it is more vital
than ever that every citizen understand the appropriate role of religion in
public life and affirm the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, or
freedom of conscience, for people of all faiths and none.
The philosophical ideas and religious convictions of Roger Williams, William
Penn, John Leland, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other leaders were
decisive in the struggle for freedom of conscience. The United States is a
nation built on ideals and convictions that have become basic democratic
principles. These principles must be understood and affirmed by every generation
if the American experiment in liberty is to endure.
FRAME OF REFERENCE
1. The protection of religion in its broadest sense. The Supreme Court
has accepted the necessity of broad recognition of worldviews (and the dangers
of too narrow a definition of religion) by giving conscientious objector status
to those who have “a sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of
its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly
qualifying for the exemption …” ( U.S. v. Seeger, 1965).
2. No one excluded from protection. The important point for citizens to
keep in mind is that religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, was intended
by the framers to protect the beliefs of everyone, not just those of recognized
1. Freedom of conscience. There shall be full freedom of conscience for
people of all faiths or no faith.
2. Religious liberty, an inalienable right. Religious liberty is
considered to be a natural or inalienable right that must always be beyond the
power of the state to confer or remove.
3. Right to practice any or no religion. Religious liberty includes the
right to freely practice any religion or no religion without government coercion
1. Article VI of the Constitution. Article VI concludes with these words:
“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or
public trust under the United States.” With this bold stroke, the framers broke
with European tradition and opened public office in the federal government to
people of any faith and no faith.
2. Religious-liberty clauses. The First Amendment’s religious-liberty
clauses state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… .” Taken together, these
two clauses safeguard religious liberty by protecting religions and religious
convictions from government interference or control. They ensure that religious
belief or nonbelief remains voluntary, free from government coercion.
(1) The difference between belief and practice. The Supreme Court has
interpreted “free exercise” to mean that any individual may believe anything he
or she wants, but there may be times when the state can limit or interfere with
practices that flow from these beliefs.
(2) The traditional “compelling interest” test. Traditionally, the Court has
required a government to demonstrate a compelling interest of the “highest
order” before it can burden or otherwise interfere with religious conduct. Even
then, the government has to demonstrate that it has no alternative means of
achieving its interest that would be less restrictive of religious conduct.
(3) The debate over the “compelling interest” test. A 1990 Supreme Court
decision, Employment Division v. Smith,states that government no longer has to demonstrate a
compelling government interest unless a law is specifically targeted at a
religious practice or infringes upon an additional constitutional right, such as
free speech. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President
Clinton in 1993, restored the compelling-interest test and ensured its
application in all cases where religious exercise is substantially burdened. In
June 1997, the Supreme Court struck the act down, holding that Congress had
overstepped its bounds by forcing states to provide more protection for
religious liberty than the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court
in Smith, requires.
(4) Several states have responded to this situation by enacting state
versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In an attempt to protect the
free exercise of religion, these new laws require the compelling-interest test
as a matter of state law. (The following have state RFRAs as of Aug. 25, 2002:
Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma,
Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas.)
(5) Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. This act is designed to protect religious assemblies and institutions
from land-use restrictions burdening their property, and to protect the right of
institutionalized persons to practice their
1. Religious views in political debate are protected. In the American
experiment in self-government, disestablishment of religion, or separation of
church and state, prevents religious institutions from establishing their faith
as the law of the land and from receiving financial support from the state. At
the same time, “free exercise” protects the right of religious views to be part
of the political debate.
2. Religious attacks in political debate may be irresponsible. It is
important to remember, however, that some actions taken by religious
organizations or individuals in the political arena (for example, attacks
against the fitness of people to hold public office because of their religion)
may not be unconstitutional but may be politically irresponsible violations of
the spirit of religious liberty.
The relationship of politics and religion has been a central issue in
American life since the Colonial era. For most of the European settlers who came
to North America in the 17th century from England, France and Spain — all
nations with established churches — a society without an established faith was
The unity and morality of the community, it was believed, depended upon
divine sanction of political authority and conformity of the populace in matters
of faith. Eventually, however, by separating religion and government and by
granting freedom to all religious groups, America launched a new political
experiment unprecedented in the world’s history.
7. Roger Williams and the origins of freedom of conscience in Puritan
Very early in the Massachusetts experiment, dissenters arose to
challenge the Puritan vision of a holy society. The first dissenter, Roger
Williams (c.1603-1683), was himself a Puritan minister but with a very different
vision of God’s plan for human society. Williams argued that God had not given
divine sanction to the Puritan colony. In his view, the civil authorities of
Massachusetts had no authority to involve themselves in matters of faith. The
true church, according to Williams, was a voluntary association of God’s elect.
Any state involvement in the worship or God, therefore, was contrary to the
divine will and inevitably led to the defilement of the church.
1. Freedom of conscience as God’s will. Central to Roger Williams’
arguments for separating church and state was his conviction that it was divine
will that every individual’s conscience remain free to accept or reject the word
of God. Williams defined freedom of conscience, which he called “soul liberty,”
as the freedom of each person to follow his or her own heart in matters of faith
without interference or coercion by the state.
Religious intolerance and war. Citing Europe’s long history of wars
and divisions, Williams pointed out that coercion in matters of faith inevitably
leads to persecution and bloodshed.
1. The founding of Rhode Island. Banished from Massachusetts in 1635,
Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, the first colony with no established church
and the first society in America to grant liberty of conscience to everyone.
Jews, Quakers and others not welcome elsewhere made their home there.
2. The wider significance of Rhode Island’s religious liberty.
Eventually, Williams’ conception of soul liberty had an impact far beyond the
Rhode Island experiment. In the 18th century, dissenting religious groups,
particularly the Baptists, were inspired by Williams’ ideas to advocate
disestablishment and freedom of conscience. Some historians also argue that
Williams’ writings influenced the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke
(1632-1704), a key source for Thomas Jefferson’s views concerning religious
1. Early religious liberty outside Rhode Island. This revolutionary
idea was echoed to a lesser degree (and for only a brief period) in 17th-century
Maryland and later, more fully, in the 18th-century “holy experiment” of Quaker
William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania.
2. Gradual extension of religious liberty. Gradually, the extension of
liberty to include not only one’s own group but also others, even those with
whom “we” disagree, became a central American conviction. It is this principle
of full freedom for people of all faiths and of none that was embodied 150 years
later in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
8. The movement toward religious liberty in the United States.
The momentous decision by the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to prohibit
religious establishment on the federal level and to guarantee free exercise of
religion was related to a number of religious, political and economic factors in
18th-century America. Underlying all of these factors, of course, was the
practical difficulty of establishing any one faith in an emerging nation
composed of a multiplicity of faiths (mostly Protestant sects), none of which
was strong enough to dominate the others.
1. The Virginia Declaration of Rights. In May 1776, just before the
Declaration of Independence, the leaders of Virginia adopted the Virginia
Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason. The first draft of the
declaration argued for the “fullest toleration in the exercise of religion
according to the dictates of conscience.” This language echoed the writings of
John Locke and the movement in England toward toleration.
2. Madison’s objection: “toleration” vs. “free exercise.”Although
toleration was a great step forward, a 25-year-old delegate named James Madison
(1751-1836) did not think it went far enough. Madison, also deeply influenced by
the ideas of the Enlightenment, successfully argued that “toleration” should be
changed to “free exercise” of religion. This seemingly small change in language
signaled a revolutionary change in ideas. For Madison, religious liberty was not
a concession by the state or the established church, but an inalienable or
natural right of every citizen.
3. “Free exercise and the First Amendment.” In 1791, the free exercise of
religion proclaimed in the Virginia Declaration became a part of the First
Amendment, guaranteeing all Americans freedom of conscience.
1. Madison, Jefferson and the struggle for disestablishment. Madison
and Jefferson argued that state support for a particular religion or for all
religions is wrong, because compelling citizens to support through taxes a faith
they do not follow violates their natural right to religious liberty. “Almighty
God had created the mind free,” declared Jefferson’s bill. Thus, “to compel a
man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he
disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”
2. The “Great Awakening” and the struggle for disestablishment. Madison
and Jefferson were greatly aided in the struggle for disestablishment by the
Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and other “dissenting” faiths of Anglican
Virginia. The religious revivals of the 18th century, often called the Great
Awakening (1728-1790), produced new forms of religious expression and belief
that influenced the development of religious liberty throughout the Colonies.
The revivalists’ message of salvation through Christ alone evoked a deeply
personal and emotional response in thousands of Americans.
3. Evangelical fervor and religious self-government. The evangelical
fervor of the Awakening cut across denominational lines and undercut support for
the privileges of the established church.
4. The final demise of religious establishment. The successful battle
for disestablishment in Virginia is a vital chapter in the story of religious
liberty in America. By the time of the ratification of the First Amendment in
1791, all of the other Anglican establishments (except in Maryland) were ended.
The Congregational establishments of New England lasted longer. Not until 1818
in Connecticut and 1833 in Massachusetts were the state constitutions amended to
9. The constitutional prohibition of religious tests for office in Article VI.
The only mention of religion in the Constitution of the United States
prior to the adoption of the First Amendment was the “no religious test”
provision of Article VI. The significance of this often-forgotten provision
cannot be exaggerated. At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787,
most of the Colonies still had religious establishments or religious tests for
office. It was unimaginable to many Americans that non-Protestants — Catholics,
Jews, atheists and others — could be trusted with public office.
1. The role of Charles Pinckney. At the Constitutional Convention,
Charles Pinckney (1757-1824), a delegate from South Carolina, proposed that “no
religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public
trust under the United States.” Though he came from a state that had established
the Protestant faith as the state religion, Pinckney represented the new spirit
of religious liberty exemplified in the Enlightenment thinking of Jefferson.
2. A tool for oppression outlawed. Remarkably, the “no religious test”
provision passed with little dissent. For the first time in history, a nation
had formally abolished one of the most powerful tools of the state for
oppressing religious minorities.
1. Exclusion of Catholics. Until the nomination of Al Smith in 1928,
all presidential and vice presidential candidates nominated by the two parties
were Protestants. In 1960, the election of John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, broke
the informal political barrier that had long excluded non-Protestants from the
2. Religious dissension among Protestants. Even with Protestant
candidates, religion has frequently been an issue. Beginning with attacks on the
Deist religious convictions of Thomas Jefferson (Deism is a faith based on
reason rather than revelation) and continuing to the recent discussions about
which candidate is “born again,” questions about the “correctness” of a
politician’s religion have played an important role in many national
3. Another barrier falls. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Sen.
Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., ran as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. An
Orthodox Jew, Lieberman spoke openly of his faith. The fact that Lieberman was
Jewish appeared to have little or no effect on the outcome of the
10. The First Amendment principles of religious liberty.
In the mind of James
Madison and some of the others at the Constitutional Convention, the
Constitution established a limited federal government with no authority to act
in religious matters. That others were unsure had momentous consequences.
1. Madison’s promise of a bill of rights. Many of those who suspected
the proposed new constitution demanded a bill of rights as their price of
moderating their heated opposition to its adoption. To win ratification, Madison
promised to propose a bill of rights in the First Congress.
2. The enshrinement of religious liberty in the Bill of Rights. Madison
kept his promise, and the religious-liberty clauses adopted by the First
Congress in 1789 became, when ratified by the required number of states in 1791,
the opening words of the Bill of Rights.
1. The First Amendment and the federal government. With the passage of
the First Amendment, the principles of non-establishment and free exercise
became the first principles of American freedom. The federal government was
constitutionally prohibited from establishing or sponsoring religion and
prohibited from interfering with the natural right of every citizen to reach,
hold, exercise or change beliefs freely.
2. The First Amendment and state governments. These prohibitions were
extended to the states in the 20th century, following Supreme Court rulings that
the 14th Amendment made the First Amendment applicable to the
11. Religious influences in American political life.
never meant to keep religious beliefs or institutions from influencing public
life. From the beginning of American history, religions and religious believers
have played a central role in shaping public policy and political debate.
1. The effects of immigration. The waves of immigrants coming to these
shores in the 19th century challenged the Protestant domination of the culture.
By 1850 Catholicism was the largest single American denomination, and by the end
of the century large numbers of Jews had arrived to become citizens.
2. The rise of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. There were only a
few Catholics and Jews in America from the earliest days of colonization. This
dramatic influx of non-Protestants created fear and anxiety among some
1. The contribution of African-American churches. The black churches
have played a central role in the political and social history of
African-Americans from the Colonial period to the present. Indeed, black
churches have shaped the lives of all Americans by providing much of the moral
and political leadership of the civil rights movement.
2. The contribution of Judaism and other minority religions. In the
late 19th and early 20th centuries, churches, synagogues and temples provided
vital support for Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Buddhist immigrants as
they adjusted to life in the United States. Religious communities were also at
the forefront of many reform movements during the Progressive Era early in this
century. Various religious groups, notably Unitarians, Quakers and Reform Jews,
have been particularly visible in the peace movements and in the advocacy of
3. Constitutional separation and the role of religion in public life.
In these and in many other ways, religious institutions and believers have
significantly influenced public policy in the United States throughout the
More people died because of their religious convictions in the 20th century
than in any previous century. And there appears to be no end to the tragedy. Of
the many wars waged throughout the world in the 1990s, more than two-thirds had
religious or ethnic differences as a root cause. From Northern Ireland to Bosnia
to Sri Lanka, religious differences contribute daily to death and destruction
around the globe.
Even the explosion of freedom in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union,
by any measure a tremendous advance for democratic principles, has been
accompanied by a serious outbreak of religious and ethnic bigotry and division.
One of the most frightening developments has been the dramatic rise of
anti-Semitism throughout the region.
Tensions between Muslims and Christians have resulted in violence in Bosnia,
Azerbaijan, Armenia and other places. How has the United States, the most
religiously diverse nation in the world, managed to avoid the “holy wars” so
prevalent today and throughout history? This remarkable achievement may be
traced directly to the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment. In
spite of occasional setbacks and outbreaks of religious bigotry, the American
experiment in religious liberty has held.
13. Confusion about the role of religion in public life threatens religious
liberty. There are disturbing signs that the American experiment in liberty may
be in danger from two extremes.
1. Change in some public schools. In the last few years, most states
have mandated more teaching about religion in the schools in the social studies
2. Efforts by U.S. Department of Education. In December 2000, the U.S.
Department of Education sent a packet of religious-liberty guidelines to every
public school principal in the nation. These guidelines focused on
religious-liberty rights of students, the relationship between public schools
and religious communities, and the role of religion in the curriculum. (See
Cases & resources in this section.)
3. Change in textbook treatment of the role of religion. As a result,
textbooks have begun to include more about the story of religious liberty and
the role of religion in American history and society.
14. The new challenges of exploding pluralism. The confusion and ignorance
surrounding the religious-liberty clauses of the Constitution leave Americans in
a weak position to meet the challenges of exploding religious pluralism in the
United States. The violent religious divisions throughout the world serve as a
dramatic reminder of how vital it is for Americans to understand and affirm the
principles of religious liberty in a nation of some 3,000 religious groups.
1. Expanding pluralism. Pluralism now includes a growing number of
people from all the world’s religions, especially Islam and Buddhism. Pluralism
must also take into account the nearly 12% of Americans who express no religious
preference at all. Pluralist expansion will only continue.
2. The burdens of exploding pluralism. The challenges of this diversity
can be seen throughout American society. This pluralism is particularly evident
in public schools. For example, dozens of different native languages are often
found among the students of large urban schools. Similarly, many different
religions are represented.
1. Living together without religious consensus. Two urgent questions
are how Americans of so many faiths will continue to live together as citizens
of one nation, and, since there is not (and cannot be) a religious consensus,
what the civic values are that Americans of all faiths and none hold in
2. Adherence to the principles of religious liberty. To answer these questions,
American citizens must return to the basic democratic principles articulated in
the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment. Religious liberty, or
freedom of conscience, is at the heart of what it means to be an American
citizen. Only in these principles can Americans find the ground rules that allow
all citizens to live together with deep religious differences.
“We affirm that a right for one is a right for another and a responsibility
for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for an Eastern Orthodox is a right
for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a
Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist — and for the followers
of any other faith within the wide bounds of the republic.
“That rights are universal and responsibilities mutual is both the premise
and the promise of democratic pluralism. The First Amendment in this sense, is
the epitome of public justice and serves as the golden rule for civic life.
Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and
group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves.”