Freedom of religion
Last updated 7/6/2023 at 7:13pm
Dr. Rick Koole
July is a time when Americans celebrate the founding of our remarkable country. And America is a country that people from around the globe seek to come to for many different reasons, not the least of which is religious freedom.
Many nations have historically favored one particular religious belief. Unfortunately, in some cases they’ve insisted their citizens adopt that particular belief or suffer dire consequences. That led many who were yearning for the freedom to worship as they pleased to come to America, where the laws of the land protected that precious freedom. Because of its importance, freedom of religion is protected by the very first amendment of the U.S. Constitution and prohibits laws establishing a national religion or impeding the free exercise of religion for its citizens.
The framers of the Constitution chose to not address freedom of religion in the Constitution other than a section that prohibits the use of religious tests as qualification for public office. This broke with European tradition by allowing people of any faith (or no faith) to serve in public office in the United States. But the framers felt strongly about adding a Bill of Rights that would protect two of our most precious freedoms: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Earlier in 1779, Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill that would guarantee the religious freedoms of Virginians of all faiths—including those with no faith—but the bill did not pass into law.
In 1785, future president James Madison drafted the First Amendment as part of the landmark Bill of Rights adopted in 1791. The Bill of Rights famously provides constitutional protection for specific individual liberties, protections which set America apart from many other countries. These liberties include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble and petition the government. It is these freedoms that continue to attract people to our country.
The First Amendment established the separation of church and state and prohibited the federal government from making any law respecting an establishment of religion. But it also prohibits the government, other than in unusual circumstances, from interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices.
Before the adoption of the First Amendment, immigrants from differing religious faiths moved to America, searching for a place to worship as they pleased and yet, unfortunately, once here they often experienced intolerance of immigrants of other faiths. More than half a century before the Pilgrims set sail in the Mayflower, French Protestants (called Huguenots) established a colony at Fort Caroline near modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. The Spanish, who were largely Catholic and occupied much of Florida at the time, slaughtered the Huguenots at Fort Caroline. The Spanish commander wrote the king that he had hanged the settlers for “scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.”
About 50 years later, the Puritans and Pilgrims arrived in New England in the early 1600s after suffering religious persecution in England. Unfortunately, however once established, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony didn’t tolerate any opposing religious views. Catholics, Quakers and other non-Puritans were banned from the colony.
In 1635, Roger Williams, a Puritan dissident, was one of those banned from Massachusetts because of his faith. Williams then moved south and founded Rhode Island, which became the first colony with no established church and the first to grant religious freedom to everyone, including Quakers and Jews.
Like so many of you, I cherish the freedoms we have in America and pray that we might be vigilant to protect them.