History of Religious Freedom in the United States (Updated 2023)

History of Religious Freedom in the United States



Freedom of religion or religious liberty is considered by most nations as a fundamental human right. This principle supports the freedom of an individual or a community to practice their religion in teaching, practice, worship, and to observe it in terms of religious holidays both in public and private.

This freedom is also extended to the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs, the right not to practice or profess any religion or belief. Note that this is different from the freedom of belief which is characterized as freedom of individual action wherein it’s not necessarily allowed to act upon or practice beliefs in public or any outward manner.

Not all countries have adopted this freedom and some are still under a state religion which means that the government allows other religions and sects to practice their beliefs without fear of persecution besides the state-appointed religion. 

The United States has quite the history before it attained its religious freedom in late 1971 with the adoption of the First Amendment included in the Bill of Rights authored by James Madison.

Unlike other liberties, religious liberty was founded and grown on American soil and not an inheritance brought from Europe with the founding fathers.

This idea of a homegrown liberty is a very important part of American history mainly because of the heavy persecution and religious wars happening in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.Catholic Spain and Catholic France were punishing their Protestant dissenters to death to which the Protestants retaliated by doing the same.

This very vivid image of religious persecution and deaths has caused a large number of Europeans settlers to come to America and escape this.

Here is a timeline of events that led to America becoming a stronghold of freedom of religion. 

Colonial America



Around five hundred years ago, French protestants called Huguenots had established their colony at Fort Caroline stationed near modern day Jacksonville, Florida.

During this time, Florida was under the Spanish occupation who are dominantly Catholic. The relationship between these two religions is founded over conflict and soon enough the Huguenots were slaughtered and hanged by the Spanish Catholics.

Records said that the Spanish commander has ordered this because the Huguenots were spreading Lutheran doctrine – a repulsive teaching founded by Martin Luther, popular for his 95 Theses against the Catholic Church and largely credited for the rise of Reformation teaching. 

By the 1600s, the Puritans and Pilgrims arrived to escape from the religious war and persecutions happening in Europe. However, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, like the Spanish Catholics, did not tolerate any opposing views and so Catholics, Quakers, and other non-Puritans were then banned from the colony. 

In 1645, a charter of Flushing Queens, New York – a neighborhood located in the north-central portion of New York City and considered today the fourth largest business district – allowed “liberty of conscience, according to the custom and practice of Holland without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate or ecclesiastical minister.”

However this was met by then Amsterdam Director Peter Stuyvesant with an edict prohibiting Quakers (those who believe that there is something of God in everybody) which is a direct opposition to the concept of liberty of conscience. During this time, New York was occupied by the Netherlands (now known as Holland).

And in 1657, inhabitants of Flushing protested against it and was known as the Flushing Remonstrance. 

It was considered a precursor to the First Amendment or the freedom of religion. According to Kenneth Jackson, this protest was remarkable due to four things.

First, it articulated and communicated the freedom of religion as a basic American freedom. Second, they spoke up about it even though there was no visible benefit for them. They just did it to give freedom to Quakers to practice their belief. Third, the language used in the remonstrance was as beautiful as their sentiment.

Fourth and last, the authors of the protest put actions into their words even when they knew that the official involved is not known for tolerance. They resisted and declared that any infringement of the charter will not be tolerated. 




The colonial Maryland founded by Lord Baltimore in 1634 passed the Maryland Toleration Act, drafted by Lord Baltimore himself, which said:

“No person or persons … shall from henceforth be any ways troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.”

This can be more accurately characterized as an ecumenical Christian toleration act as it was not yet fully tolerating of other religions with a mandate of death penalty. Although, in history, this was considered the first application of freedom of religion. And the affirmatory acts and its prohibition on any form of harassment towards the diverse Christian denominations was a significant progressive step towards freedom of religion during that time. 

But this act would then go on a cycle of repealment and reinstatement. 

This act was then repealed with the help from Protestant assemblymen and replaced with a new act which prevented Catholics from openly practicing their religion. In 1657, Lord Baltimore regained control after making a deal with the Protestant assemblymen and a year after, the act was again passed which turned to last for thirty years until 1692 when freedom of religion was again repealed following the 1698 Protestant revolution.

In 1704, an act was passed to prevent the continuous growth of Popery which in turn prevented Catholics from holding any position in the office. But full toleration of all religious denominations were restored by the American Revolution. 


In 1635, a Puritan dissident by the name of Roger Williams was banned from the Massachusetts Bay Colony which forced him to move South where he founded Rhode Island. In 1663, Rhode Island then became the first colony that had no established Church. In addition, it was also the first to grant full religious freedom – that includes both Quakers and Jews. 


Thomas Jefferson, then Virginia’s governor, drafted a bill that would give his constituents religious freedom – including those without faith. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass as law. 


In the U.S. Constitution, religion was only mentioned once. This is in Article VI, Section 3 which prohibits the use of religious tests as a qualification for any public office. This has become quite a controversy at that time as almost every president in the past hundred years of history has sworn oath of office on the Bible. John Quincy Adams was the first and only president to publicly and swear their oath on the Constitution instead of the Bible. 




James Madison, a Virginian statesman, proposed the Bill of Rights which includes the First Amendment specific to the constitutional protection of freedom of religion, speech and the press, and protest against the government. 

It was adopted on December 5, 1971 which established the separation of church and state. Additionally, it outlawed the federal government from creating any law which respects the establishment of religion and its interference with a person’s religious beliefs or practices.

The religious civil liberties in the First Amendment is read as follows,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There two important clauses in the First Amendment. First is the Establishment Clause which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” which generally reads that the Federal government is prohibited from establishing a national church or state religion or its otherwise excessive involvement in any religion which could lead into bias. 

Second, the “Free Exercise Clause” which is the rest of the religious civil liberty states that any form of prohibition to the free exercise of these religious liberties is in direct violation of the First Amendment.  Although, the Supreme Court of the United States, has consistently held that the free exercise of religion is not deemed absolute in all cases and should be examined in detail.

As they reiterated, “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”

To further explain, the law only covers the protection of belief but if the practices that come with the beliefs like for example vampirism or human sacrifice, then the Law and the Supreme Court shall rule otherwise. 




This was marked by the Treaty of Tripoli often found among historical discussions related to religion. The Treaty of Tripoli or the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary signed in 1796 was the first treaty between the U.S. and Tripoli or modern day Libya which entails secure commercial shipping rights and protection of American ships while they sail in the Mediterranean.

This was unanimously ratified by the United States Senate on June 7, 1797 and took effect three days after under the presidency of John Adams. 

The reason why it was cited in context of the history of religious freedom was due to the Article 11 of the treaty which states that, 

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

And in accordance with Article VI of the Constitution, this treaty became part of the “supreme Law of the Land.”





The Fourteenth Amendment which is characterized as the justification of the free exercise clause cited in the religious civil liberties of the First Amendment was ratified. 

This amendment guaranteed religious civil rights covering the prohibition of discrimination which includes religion by providing and securing equall protection of the law to all individuals. 

The Fourth Amendment reads as follows. 

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”


Following the First and Fourteenth Amendments, here are the landmark Supreme Court Cases discussing the religious intolerances in the history of religious freedom in the United States. 


Reynolds v. United States – This is the reiteration of the Supreme Court’s stand on the exercise of religious freedom as not absolute. The facts of the case state that George Reynolds who is a member of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints was charged with bigamy in violation of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act.

In this case, the boundaries of religious liberty cited in the First and Fourth Amendments was tested as the Supreme Court ruled that the federal laws banning polygamy is not in violation of the religious freedom of Mormons to marry more than one.

The Supreme Court stated that the coverage of the First Amendment only extends to the regulation of belief but not to the further extent of breaking a federal law in terms of practices such as marriage. 


Cantwell v Connecticut – The Supreme Court ruled that the statute — which is an early type of consumer protection law which requires the Secretary before any certificate issuance permitting solicitation and determination of cause as religious or conforms to reasonable standards of efficiency and integrity — violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of discrimination.

This was when Cantwell and his sons who belong to Jehovah’s Witness, went door-to-door carrying books, pamphlets, and a portable phonograph which has a specific record labeled Enemies. This was a specific attack on the organized religion and more importantly to the Roman Catholic. In addition to that, they played this to two citizens who were then incensed. 


Braunfeld v Brown – This case was brought upon by Abraham Braunfeld and other Orthodox Jews wherein the reasoned out against the state law to close on Sundays as they’re mandated by their religion to close from Friday night to Saturday night as well which would impact their business profits.

There was no agreement but the majority of the six justices assigned to the case did not find that the Sunday closing as required by the state was not in violation of the Constitution. This case relied heavily on the rulings of the 1878 Reynold v United States and 1940 Cantwell v Connecticut cases to show that the freedom to act upon religious convictions as provided by the Fourth Amendment is not absolutely free of any legislative restriction. 

First, the law was equally applied to all that is within the power of the State government without any bias to religious faith or intentional targeting of a specific religious practice. The Law was in line with the government’s requirement to set aside one day a week for rest. Second, it was not made to discriminate against any religious practice. 


Sherbert v Verner – Adeil Sherbert was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church who according to the facts of the state was fired from her job after refusing to work on her Sabbath Day which is Saturday. When she applied for unemployment compensation she was then denied s her refusal to work on a Saturday constituted a failure without good cause to accept available work. 

In the Free Exercise Clause, the government is prohibited from setting unemployment benefits eligibility requirements that are in conflict or would cause an individual to fail the observation of his/her religious practice. And a few of the justices held this as they said that the state’s eligibility restrictions have indeed put a burden on Sherbert to freely exercise her faith. Although some justices dissented that thought as they stated that a ruling in favor of Sherbert will require the state to make exceptions for such practices of religious convictions. 


Employment Division v Smith – This facts of this case is as follows. Two counselors who are members of the Native American Church and private drug rehabilitation program organization, ingested peyote, a powerful hallucinogen. As a result, these counselors were fired from the organization as it violates the positions they are in.

The government denied their unemployment compensation as their dismissal from work is justified as work-related misconduct. The court ruled to ban peyote despite it being part of theNative American ceremonies. As stated in the 1963 Sherbert v Verner, the allowing of exceptions to every state law that has significant effect on religious practices would lead to a constitutionally required exemptions from some civic obligations. 

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