A Short Primer on the History of Religious Freedom in the U.S.

From the adoption of the Constitution on, and from much earlier in some of the colonies, the United States has promised religious liberty to all. The Constitution guarantees every American the right to freely exercise religion, and it promises not to establish any state-sponsored religion. Americans dispute the meaning of those guarantees, and the nation has not always lived up to its constitutional ideals. But religious freedom in the United States has seen more successes than failures.

Three large clusters of issues have persisted from colonial times to today. To what extent can the government help fund the church? To what extent can government sponsor religious belief or observance? To what extent can government interfere with religious practices? The answers have changed over time, often in response to changing lines of religious conflict.

Protestant-Protestant Conflict at the Founding

The Church of England was formally established in five southern colonies and in parts of New York. In three New England colonies, the Puritans and their eighteenth-century descendants, the Congregational Church, were effectively established. These established churches were supported by taxes and government land grants. Four colonies never had a formally established church.

Adherents of the churches that were not established were called “dissenters.” Beginning in the 1740s, Baptists, Presbyterians, and other dissenters greatly increased their numbers in a surge of religious enthusiasm known as The Great Awakening. These dissenting churches were the direct religious ancestors of today’s evangelicals.

In the wake of the Revolution, each state and the new federal government adopted a constitution. The evangelical dissenters insisted that these constitutions guarantee religious liberty. Immediately in most states, eventually in all, the established churches were disestablished—deprived of tax support and of formal government sponsorship. Disestablishment was mostly the work of evangelical religious dissenters.

The dominant issue in the founding-era debate over disestablishment was government financial support for churches. Churches that received tax support did not want to give it up; many citizens did not want to pay the taxes. Defenders of the established churches proposed as a compromise that dissenters be allowed to pay their church tax to their own church. But every state eventually rejected this compromise. It was settled that government would not fund the religious functions of churches. But did that include religious schools? Or only churches?

Protestant-Catholic Conflict: The Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries

Beginning in the 1820s and continuing until World War I, there was massive Catholic, and later Jewish, immigration to the United States. The movement to create public school systems largely coincided with the early years of this immigration. The combination caused serious Protestant-Catholic conflict that raised two principal issues.

Antebellum Americans expected public schools to teach religion. They taught the Bible and the basic principles of Christianity, while trying to avoid disagreements among Christian denominations. From a Catholic perspective, this religious teaching was clearly Protestant in its scriptural translations and ritual practices. Catholics demanded that public schools eliminate Protestant teaching or that government pay for privately run Catholic schools. In the Catholic view, they were simply demanding equality. Government paid for public schools that were Protestant; it should also pay for schools that were Catholic.

Protestants denied that the public schools were Protestant. They said that religious exercises in the public schools were “nonsectarian,” by which they meant neutral as among Christians, but that Catholic schools were “sectarian,” teaching the doctrines of a particular sect. Protestants also refused government funding for the few Protestant private schools. But everyone understood that Catholics were the principal target of this distinction between sectarian and nonsectarian schools.

World War I cut off the great flow of European immigration, and after the war, the United States restricted its resumption. Each succeeding generation of Catholics and Jews were more assimilated than their parents, and Protestant-Catholic tension gradually eased. After the Catholic John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, and after the Second Vatican Council committed the Catholic Church to freedom of conscience, lingering anti-Catholicism collapsed with remarkable speed.

Religious-Secular and Left-Right Conflict: The Late-Twentieth Century and Today

The 1960s were a decade of great social change. All that change provoked a backlash, and part of that backlash was religious. Culturally conservative religious believers of all faiths—evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews—resisted the sexual revolution, the general attitude of permissiveness, and the sense of social disorder associated with demonstrations and riots. They were especially unhappy with Supreme Court decisions prohibiting school-sponsored prayer in public schools and protecting a right to abortion. Socially conservative believers became part of the conservative political coalition.

This backlash had consequences for competing views of religious freedom. Evangelical Protestants had been among the most vigorous opponents of government funding for religious schools. But now they built religious schools of their own, and by the 1980s, they changed their minds about government funding for religious schools. Government funding for private schools now draws support from a coalition of Catholics, evangelical Protestants, secular conservatives, and African-American parents. The Supreme Court has responded; it now permits governments to subsidize private schools, and requires that if a state does so, it subsidize religious private schools on equal terms with secular private schools.

By the 1980s and later, the principal line of religious division in the United States found conservative believers arrayed against more liberal believers and a growing minority of nonbelievers. Both coalitions cross traditional religious lines; they include Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The two sides increasingly disagree about regulatory exemptions for religious practice.

From colonial times forward, Americans had exempted many religious practices from regulation. Conscientious objectors were exempt from the draft, the Amish were exempt from sending their children to high school, and Sabbatarians were often protected from having to work on Saturday. Through the early 1990s, such exemptions had overwhelming bipartisan support. But then deep divisions over sexual morality polarized the issue on partisan lines as Catholic organizations sought exemptions from providing free contraception and conservative believers sought exemption from assisting with same-sex weddings.

Ideological groupings on the Supreme Court switched sides. Conservative Justices who feared judicial activism cut back on religious exemptions in 1990, and the liberals mostly dissented. But in the new millennium, a new generation of conservative Justices aggressively granted religious exemptions, and again, the liberals mostly dissented.

This alignment may last for a few years or for many. But it would be foolish to make long-term predictions. The American experience of religion will continue to evolve, and its experience of religious liberty will evolve with it.