Freedom of Religion
In 1785, Virginia statesman (and future president) James Madison argued against state support of Christian religious instruction. Madison would go on to draft the First Amendment, a part of the Bill of Rights that would provide constitutional protection for certain individual liberties including freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, and the rights to assemble and petition the government.
The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791. It established a separation of church and state that prohibited the federal government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also prohibits the government, in most cases, from interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices.
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, extended religious freedom by preventing states from enacting laws that would advance or inhibit any one religion.
Religious Intolerance In the United States
At Haun’s Mill, Missouri militia members massacred 17 Mormons on October 30, 1838.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. government subsidized boarding schools to educate and assimilate Native American children. At these schools, Native American children were prohibited from wearing ceremonial clothes or practicing native religions.
While most states followed federal example and abolished religious tests for public office, some states maintained religious tests well into the twentieth century. Maryland, for instance, required “a declaration of belief in God,” for all state officeholders until 1961.
Landmark Supreme Court Cases
Reynolds v. United States (1878): This Supreme Court case tested the limits of religious liberty by upholding a federal law banning polygamy. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment forbids government from regulating belief but not from actions such as marriage.
Braunfeld v. Brown (1961): The Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring stores to close on Sundays, even though Orthodox Jews argued the law was unfair to them since their religion required them to close their stores on Saturdays as well.
Sherbert v. Verner (1963): The Supreme Court ruled that states could not require a person to abandon their religious beliefs in order to receive benefits. In this case, Adell Sherbert, a Seventh-day Adventist, worked in a textile mill. When her employer switched from a five-day to six-day workweek, she was fired for refusing to work on Saturdays. When she applied for unemployment compensation, a South Carolina court denied her claim.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): This Supreme Court decision struck down a Pennsylvania law allowing the state to reimburse Catholic schools for the salaries of teachers who taught in those schools. This Supreme Court case established the “Lemon Test” for determining when a state or federal law violates the Establishment Clause—that’s the part of the First Amendment that prohibits the government from declaring or financially supporting a state religion.
Ten Commandments Cases (2005): In 2005, the Supreme Court came to seemingly contradictory decisions in two cases involving the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. In the first case, Van Orden v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled that the display of a six-foot Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capital was constitutional. In McCreary County v. ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two large, framed copies of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses violated the First Amendment.