Primary Sources: Freedom of Religion

Primary Sources: Freedom of Religion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Freedom of Religion in the First Amendment

Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing an official state religion or favoring one religion over another.

Rhode Island Charter (1663) – The American colonies often had very different laws regulating religious practices. Rhode Island was the first colony to allow religious freedom. Documents such as the Rhode Island Royal Charter later influenced the First Amendment.

Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785) – “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” was written by James Madison and presented to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785. It argued for religious liberty according to the dictates of individual conscience, and against government support of religion in any form.

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) – The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was drafted in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson, though it wasn’t passed until 1786. The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all religious faiths, including Christians of all denominations, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus.

County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989) – This Supreme Court case that decided whether Christmas and Hanukkah displays on government property violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster Brochure (c. 2010s) – Many have fought for religious freedom and tolerance in the United States and some have even employed comical strategies to achieve these ends. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an American satirical religion that uses humor and theatrics to fight for the “separation of church and state.”

Free Exercise Clause

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment guarantees the rights of Americans to hold religious beliefs and engage in religious practices without government interference.

Jefferson Bible (1820) – The “Jefferson Bible” was created by Thomas Jefferson who cut and pasted, with a razor and glue, numerous sections from the New Testament. Jefferson’s condensed composition excludes all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural. Jefferson’s Bible is a controversial text that sheds light on the religious beliefs of one of the most influential Founding Fathers. 

Book of Mormon Manuscript Excerpt (1829) – The First Amendment not only protects religious practice but also protects the freedom to believe in new ideas, which has resulted in the formation of many new religions. One of the most famous religions founded in the United States is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, a farmer from upstate New York, created the Book of Mormon, and today the Mormon church numbers more than 16 million followers worldwide.

Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures (1875) – This seminal book by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was selected as one of the “75 Books By Women Whose Words Have Changed The World,” by the Women’s National Book Association. It is the foundational text of the Christian Science religion. Christian Science is one of the few American religions founded by a woman.

Case Brief: West Virginia State Board of Education et al. vs. Barnett. et al. (1943) – During the height of WWII, the West Virginia State Board of Education required students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. One student, a Jehovah’s Witness, refused, saying it was against his religious beliefs. But was this legal? The Supreme Court weighed in.

American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978) – This law was enacted by the US Congress to return basic civil liberties to Native Americans, Inuit, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians, and allowed them to practice their religions freely.