History of Religious Liberty in America



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.


Conceptual perspective

  1. The central place of faith in the idea of religion.
    The radical pluralism
    of faiths in the United States today makes it difficult to define religion
    without excluding religions that may not fit a chosen definition. If, however,
    citizens are to understand the role of religion in American public life and
    support religious liberty for all, they need to appreciate that faith is of
    central importance to many Americans.

    1. The centrality of religion in the lives of many Americans. Without defining
      what religion is, we can, for purposes of civic understanding, focus on what
      religion does in the lives of believers. Ultimate beliefs and worldviews shape
      the lives of many people because they are regarded as the deepest source of
      meaning and belonging. In the United States, arguably the most religious of all
      the industrialized nations, religious beliefs are at the center of life for
      millions of Americans. These beliefs are not confined to worship and family
      life; they also shape the political and social views of vast numbers of
    2. The expansion of religious pluralism. The United States has moved beyond the
      largely Protestant pluralism of its early history to a pluralism that includes
      almost every religious expression in the world. This expanding diversity
      presents new challenges for American public life.
    3. Religious liberty as freedom of conscience for all, including nonbelievers. A
      growing number of people in the United States express no religious preference at
      all. Any discussion of pluralism and the role of religion in public life,
      therefore, must include secularists, humanists, nonbelievers and others who do
      not profess any religious beliefs.

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
faith communities.

  1. The American experiment in religious liberty.
    Religious liberty in America
    is a key part of the boldest and most successful experiment in freedom the world
    has known. The strength and diversity of religion in the United States is due
    almost entirely to the full protection of religious liberty, or freedom of
    conscience, guaranteed by the Constitution.

    1. Religious liberty as the “first liberty.” Religious liberty has been called
      America’s “first liberty” because freedom of the mind is logically and
      philosophically prior to all other freedoms protected by the Constitution.
    2. Definition of religious liberty. In the American experiment, religious
      liberty is defined according to the following elements:

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
or control.

  1. Guarantees of religious liberty in the Constitution. The guiding principles
    supporting the definition of religious liberty are set forth in Article VI of
    the Constitution and in the opening words of the First Amendment to the
    Constitution. These principles have become the ground rules by which people of
    all religions and none can live together as citizens of one nation.

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. State and local government included. The clauses apply equally to actions of
    both state and local governments, because the Supreme Court has ruled that the
    14th Amendment’s dictum that states are not to deprive any person of liberty
    makes the First Amendment applicable to the states.
  2. Meaning of “no establishment.” “No establishment” means that neither a state
    nor the federal government can establish a particular religion or religion in
    general. Further, government is prohibited from advancing or supporting
    religion. This does not mean that the government can be hostile to religion. The
    government must maintain what the Supreme Court has called “benevolent
    neutrality,” which permits religious exercise to exist but denies it government
    sponsorship. The no-establishment clause serves to prevent both religious
    control over government and political control over religion.
  3. Meaning of “free exercise.” “Free exercise” is the freedom of every citizen
    to reach, hold, practice and change beliefs according to the dictates of
    conscience. The free-exercise clause prohibits government interference with
    religious belief and, within limits, religious practice.

(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. Religion, public life and politics.
    The First Amendment separated church
    from state but not religion from public life.

    1. The involvement of religious groups in public life. Many religious groups
      consider it an article of faith to speak out on issues of moral concern in the
      public sphere. The Constitution protects the right of religious individuals and
      organizations to attempt to shape public policy and to exercise their influence.
      There are presently hundreds of nonprofit groups concerned with religious issues
      and public life in the United States.
    2. Tax-exempt status dependent on nonpartisanship. However, religious
      organizations that are exempt from taxation under Section 501(c)(3) of the
      Internal Revenue Code may not engage in partisan politics by endorsing or
      opposing candidates for public office or by spending a substantial amount of
      their resources lobbying Congress.
    3. Religious liberty and political responsibility. In certain cases, the
      injection of religious views into political debate, though constitutionally
      protected, may be irresponsible.

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.

Historical perspective

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.

  1. The religious liberty sought by the Puritans.
    Like many who arrived on
    these shores in the 17th century, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay came to
    America seeking religious freedom.

    1. Religious freedom not sought for others. The freedom they sought, however,
      was for themselves and not for others. The Puritans felt called by God to
      establish “new Israel,” a holy commonwealth based on a covenant between God and
      themselves as the people of God.
    2. All laws to be grounded in God’s law. Though there were separate areas of
      authority for church and state in Puritan Massachusetts, all laws of the
      community were to be grounded in God’s law and all citizens were expected to
      uphold the divine covenant. Massachusetts was to be an example to the world of
      God’s kingdom on Earth, “a City upon a hill.”

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. “Soul liberty” means freedom of conscience for all. Williams’ arguments for
    religious liberty had two principal parts.

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. Rhode Island’s experiment in religious liberty. Williams found it necessary
    to seek religious liberty outside of Massachusetts Bay.

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. Freedom of conscience as an American conviction. The Puritans’ demand for
    religious liberty for themselves became, in the vision of Roger Williams, a
    requirement of religious liberty for all.

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. From toleration to free exercise. The period between 1776 and the passage of
    the First Amendment in 1791 saw critical changes in fundamental ideas about
    religious freedom.

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. From establishment to separation. The decisive battle for disestablishment
    came in the large and influential colony of Virginia, where the Anglican Church
    was the established faith. Once again, James Madison played a pivotal role by
    leading the fight that persuaded the Virginia Legislature to adopt in 1786
    Thomas Jefferson’s “Bill for the Establishment of Religious Freedom.”

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.

  1. Support of religious choice by evangelicals. Religion was seen by many as a
    matter of free choice and churches as places of self-government. The alliance of
    church and state was now seen by many as harmful to the cause of religion.
  2. Leadership in Virginia of John Leland. In Virginia this climate of dissent
    and the leadership of such religious leaders as John Leland, a Baptist, provided
    the crucial support Madison needed to win the battle for religious liberty in

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
complete disestablishment.

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. “No religious test” proposed at the Constitutional Convention. One aspect of
    religious liberty was inserted into the Constitution during its framing in

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. Religious tests imposed in some states. Most states followed the federal
    example and abolished tests for state office. But it was not until 1868 in North
    Carolina, 1946 in New Hampshire, and 1961 in Maryland that religious tests were
    abolished entirely. Maryland had required since 1867 “a declaration of belief in
    God” for all officeholders. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this
    requirement in its 1961 decision in Torcaso v. Watkins,freedom of conscience was fully extended to include
    non-believers as well as believers. No religious test can be imposed for any
    office at any level of government.
  2. Informal religious tests a factor in elections. Though the Constitution
    barred religious tests as a formal qualification for office, many American
    voters continued to apply informal religious tests in the political arena,
    particularly in presidential elections.

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. Reassurance for those fearful of religious intolerance. Many Americans,
    including leaders of the Baptists and other religious groups, feared that the
    Constitution offered an insufficient guarantee of the civil and religious rights
    of citizens.

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. Religious liberty and the first principles of American liberty. Full
    religious liberty was first applied to acts of the federal government alone.
    Later it was applied to the states as well.

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.
Disestablishment was
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. De facto Protestant establishment. For many Protestants in the 19th century,
    disestablishment meant an end to the coercive power of the state in matters of
    faith and barred any faith from becoming the legally established religion. But
    disestablishment did not extinguish the Protestant vision of creating and
    maintaining a “Christian America.” By numbers and influence, Protestantism
    became the de facto established religion of the nation. Many no doubt agreed
    with Daniel Webster when he argued in 1844 that “general tolerant Christianity
    is the law of the land.”
  2. Protestant contributions to social reform. The close ties between Protestant
    churches and American culture led to many social and political reforms. This can
    most clearly be seen in the “Second Great Awakening” of the early 19th century,
    when some Protestant leaders mounted a crusade to reform and revitalize America.
    Urban social work, schooling for poor children, the abolitionist movement,
    supported by Quakers, Methodists and others, were only a few of the many reform
    movements inspired in large measure by the religious awakenings.
  3. Nativist reaction to expanding pluralism. A dark side to the Protestant
    vision of America became evident in the 19th century.

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. Intolerance and the “Know Nothings” at mid-century. An anti-Catholic and
    anti-foreign nativist movement emerged in the first half of the 19th century,
    culminating in the 1840s and 1850s in the Know-Nothing Party. The party
    endeavored to exclude Catholics from politics. Catholics were the victims of
    violence and discrimination in many parts of the nation.
  2. Intolerance at the turn of the century. A resurgence of similar sentiments in
    the late 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to widespread anti-Semitism,
    opposition to immigration, and the rise of the Ku Klux
  1. The positive role of religion in helping shape public policy. The ugly
    expressions of religious bigotry in the nativist movement represent some of the
    worst examples of religious involvement in politics and public policy. But
    religion has also been at the heart of some of the best movements in American
    social and political life.

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
social justice.

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
nation’s history.

  1. Benefits of religious moral leadership. Again, disestablishment was not meant
    to separate religion from public life. Politics and government in America have
    clearly benefited from the moral leadership and values of many religious
    traditions and convictions.
  2. Costs of religious zealotry. At the same time, the nation has suffered from
    violations of the spirit of religious liberty by religious groups who have at
    various times in our history used the public square to attack the religion of
    others or to deny others the full rights of

Contemporary perspective

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.

  1. Religions remain active in American political life. Religious liberty has
    allowed religions in the United States to grow and prosper as in few other
    places in the world. Not only are a large number of Americans deeply religious,
    but their religious communities continue to be actively involved in political
    life. This is evident, for example, in the civil rights and peace movements.
    Also, since the late 1970s, fundamentalist Christian communities together with
    other evangelical Christians have become a significant force in American
    politics, speaking out on a variety of social and moral issues.

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. Two extremes on the issue of religion and public life. On one end of the
    political spectrum there are those who seek to establish in law a “Christian
    America.” On the other end are some who seek to exclude religion from public
    life entirely. Both proposals violate the spirit of religious liberty.
  2. Teaching religion vs. teaching about religion. The controversy surrounding
    the role of religion in public life has left many citizens confused about the
    principles of religious liberty. This confusion is made worse by the absence of
    teaching about religion and religious liberty in many public schools. Teaching
    about religion in the schools is often confused with the teaching of religion,
    or religious advocacy and indoctrination.

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. Pluralism as meaning society includes people of all faiths and none.
    Religious pluralism in the United States has expanded beyond the Protestant,
    Catholic and Jewish pluralism of the 1950s.

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. The First Amendment as providing ground rules for living together. As the
    United States begins its third century of constitutional government, important
    questions arise.

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.

  1. The Williamsburg Charter. One effort to return to basic principles is the
    Williamsburg Charter. Drafted by members of America’s leading faiths and revised
    over the course of two years in close consultation with political, academic,
    educational and religious leaders, the charter was signed in 1988 by former
    Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, two chief justices of the United
    States, and by nearly 200 leaders of national life. With their signatures, these
    individuals strongly reaffirmed the principles of religious liberty as essential
    for developing a common vision for the common good.
    The Williamsburg Charter states in part:

“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.”



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