Religious liberty has a long and messy history in America
By James Hudnut-Beumler and James P. Byrd, Vanderbilt School of Theology
At the end of its recent mandate, the Supreme Court ruled on the cases of Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, rekindling controversy over one of the most enduring issues in American history: religious freedom. Another of the key decisions of this quarter, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, emphasizes the fact that religious beliefs and actions in the public domain are important. Whether it is religion and education, prayer or reproduction, Americans are very committed to their religious freedoms.
The Carson case came from Maine, where areas with too few students to warrant a public high school used public money to pay private schools to educate their students. Under its policy, Maine only allowed nonsectarian private schools or neighboring public school districts to receive the funds. Parents who wanted to send their students to religious schools argued that the policy was discriminatory on the basis of religion. The majority of the court agreed, ruling that denying state support to students attending religious schools because their schools were religious violated First Amendment protections on religious liberty.
In the Kennedy case, the court pared back decades of rulings that considered school employees leading prayer an illegal establishment of religion because it implicated church and state in the act. In the revised court opinion, Coach Joseph Kennedy possessed a First Amendment right to pray in private after football matches on the 50-meter line, allowed even if the students joined him in prayer.
Religious freedom is one of the earliest civic values associated with the United States, but defining and defending it has proven to be an age-old process. Divided opinions on both sides of the courts claimed to speak in favor of religious freedom. This is possible because religious freedom under the Constitution contains both the right to freely exercise one’s religion and the right not to be compelled by the state to accept someone else’s religious practices.
As historians of American religious history and authors of a recent book, “The History of Religion in Americawe know that both aspects of religious freedom – the freedom to practice one’s own religion and the freedom not to be forced to support the religions of others – have a long and important history.
The Founders of Religious Freedom
The first amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1791, defended the free exercise of religion and prohibited the founding of a national church. The principal founders of religious freedom and church-state issues were two Virginians, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
The problem of religious beliefs, Madison believed, was that most often people couldn’t agree on them. Governments, he argued, therefore had no business supporting religion.
Religion could unite people, but more often it did the opposite, dividing people into opposing camps, each believing their side to be sacred. In Madison’s view, therefore, religious differences made it more difficult to run a government for the common good.
Beginning of American religious freedom
More than 150 years before religious liberty entered the Constitution, it nevertheless lived on in the spirit and conduct of Roger Williams, a Puritan educated at the University of Cambridgewho challenged Puritan views on religious liberty and the relationship between church and state.
No sooner had Williams landed in New England than he began to challenge Puritan authorities, claiming that civil courts should not enforce religious belief and that the right to worship (or not) according to one’s own conscience was fundamental. He noted that the American Nativesto whom his fellow Christians considered themselves superior, were often better people than the English.
These beliefs terrified and infuriated the Puritan rulers, who quickly Roger radical banished of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He later resurfaced in what became the colony of Rhode Island, where he helped start a new colony called Providence, which, unlike the Puritan-controlled Massachusetts Bay, would allow religious freedom for all who lived there.
Although Puritans thought Williams’ ideas were dangerousWilliams thought the greatest danger was that the government would try to legislate religion. He had only to point out that more blood had been shed on religion than on any issue, Protestants fighting Catholics, Christians fight Muslimsand European empires attempting to forcibly convert Native Americans into the so-called “missions.”
The slow road to religious freedom for all
Yet state-sponsored religion died hard. Massachusetts was the last state to drop the establishment of a church, in 1833. Even after all the states dropped their “official” denominationsstates continued to control religious and moral conduct.
Moreover, the States themselves often forced Christianity, and particularly Protestantism, on the public at school and public policies. This continued until the First Amendment prohibitions on government religion were extended to the states via the 14th Amendment. Two Supreme Court cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing to salute the flag – Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) and West Virginia vs. Barnette (1943) – played an important role in this regard. In other words, the right to religious freedom, in the sense of being allowed to abstain from an activity because of one’s religious beliefs, is less than long-lived.
Until the Vietnam War, if a man applied to be a conscientious objector, editorial boards would consider whether he belonged to a denomination that opposed any participation in war – Mennonites or Quakers, for example. Objection to a particular war or affirmation of one’s own sincere beliefsdidn’t pick up any for the draw induction.
This focus changed from the Supreme Court’s recognition of individual conscience in two cases: Welsh vs USA (1970) and Gillette v. United States (1971). The decisions came too late to prevent Muhammad Ali from going to jail when he resisted the project in 1967. But they shifted the locus of conscience to individuals, provided their objections were sincere.
Individual consciences in collective conflict
Over the following decades, American religious life itself became more centered on individuals and less on the teachings of religious traditions. Similarly, the courts have focused more on the definitions that some people have of their own sincere beliefs. These trips are both very American – as the example of Roger Williams illustrates – and likely to greater social division because the convictions of citizens and groups can lead them in opposite directions.
Religious freedom in America is perpetually a work in progress. The First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses live in perpetual tension – two goods that must be balanced. The recent Supreme Court rulings on religious freedom are fully part of America’s long struggle to define religious freedom and are only the most recent attempt to strike a balance between goods.
James Hudnut Beumler and James P. Byrd, are professors of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.