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Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - USA

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 1 Political Rights, 1 Civil Liberties (Free)


The United States is sometimes regarded as the world's oldest continuous democracy, with governments elected under the Constitution since 1789. However, its democratic tradition dates to the earliest English settlements in the 17th century.

From the beginning, the United States expanded west, propelled most dramatically by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. As settlers moved across the continent, the government brutally displaced the Native Americans who populated the land and forced them onto reservations. Today, the 48 contiguous states are bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the east and west, Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. The state of Alaska lies to the northwest of Canada, and the state of Hawaii is an island chain in the Pacific. The United States is also responsible for a number of smaller island territories. At 9.6 million square kilometers, the country is the third largest in the world, behind Russia and Canada. With 300 million people, it is also the third most populous, after China and India.

The U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 was $13.2 trillion, more than three times the figure for the world's second-ranked economy, Japan. The United States' gross national income (GNI) per capita was $44,970, or 10th in the world. By purchasing power parity (PPP), which accounts for price differences to get a better picture of living standards, that figure was $44,260, or fourth in the world.

America is one of the most religious countries in the world.

America's democratic heritage includes constitutional separation of powers; checks and balances on the different branches of government; federalism (retention of power by the states); an independent judiciary; religious freedom; respect for individual liberties; and high levels of participation in civic life. But the country's history also includes the practice of slavery, which was abolished only by means of a protracted and bloody civil war. Institutionalized discrimination against African Americans and other minorities went on for another century. The civil rights movement that overcame this legacy of racism is revered today as an example of democratic virtue, and the prolonged struggle speaks to the difficulty of correcting entrenched injustice even in a democracy.

America is one of the most religious countries in the world. According to a 2006 report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, some 87 percent of Americans surveyed described themselves as affiliated with some religion. Eighty-two percent reported Christian affiliation (23 percent were Roman Catholic, 56 percent Protestant). Other religions accounted for 5 percent of the population, including Jews with 2 percent and Muslims with 1 percent. Agnostics, atheists, and those with no religious affiliation made up at least 11 percent of the population.


The Colonies as Religious Refuge

Several of America's original English colonies were established as refuges for religious dissidents. Among the first were 102 so-called Pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony in 1620, in what later became Massachusetts. The group was led by "separatists," a faction of the larger Puritan movement who favored separation from the Church of England over attempts to reform it from within. Puritans aimed to cleanse Protestant worship of any remaining Catholic influences and structures. While not violently persecuted, English separatists were harassed and threatened with fines or imprisonment. The separatist group who made up about a third of the Plymouth colonists had initially immigrated to the Netherlands in 1607 and then, funded by London merchants, to the New World. Many Puritans later came to agree with the Pilgrims' attempts to create an ideal community away from England and took the same voyage to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the north of Plymouth. The two groups united their theological positions in 1648 and were considered Congregationalists, since they believed in the autonomy of each voluntary church congregation.

Many distinct religious groups sought similar refuge in England's new colonies, aiming to carry on their religious practices without the wars, persecution, and social ostracism they experienced in Europe. These included Protestant sects from various countries, including Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), as well as Jews and Catholics.

Front plate of a 1661 Book describing the repression of Quakers

The Origins of Religious Freedom

Some of these religious sects, believing theirs was the truest expression of the Christian faith, were as intolerant of others as their European persecutors had been of them. A number of colonies established their own official religions and imposed restrictions barring other practices. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are most famous for their strict observance and authoritarian character (preacher Roger Williams, for example, was forced to leave and went on to found Rhode Island), but they were not the only group to insist on conformity. At the time of the country's founding, nine of the 13 original states had official or state-subsidized religions as well as restrictive laws. Virginia imposed penalties, including death, for deviant religious observance; the rules were directed especially against Quakers and Baptists.

The Quakers were persecuted for their strict personal adherence to beliefs that clashed with those of mainstream colonial society, including the Puritan-dominated settlements. However, William Penn, a Quaker leader who established the colony of Pennsylvania, instituted a law that embodied his sect's rule of religious toleration. His Frame of Government (1682) declares:

All persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.

Coming before the 1689 Toleration Act in Britian, which granted freedom of worship to Protestant sects outside the established church, Penn's document was an early landmark in the history of constitutionally protected religious freedom. Pennsylvania became a haven for small Central European sects, including the Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, Moravians, and some German Baptist groups.

Religious Belief and the Founding of the Republic

The American Revolution was motivated in part by a desire to protect the religious autonomy enjoyed by many communities against a reassertion of British control. Some advocates of the Revolution were millennialists who believed that defeating the "evil" British would bring about the second coming of Christ. Others, like the famous Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew, asserted that it was a Christian's duty to oppose tyranny, offering a religious justification for political action. The cleric Abraham Keteltas described the American Revolution as:

the cause of truth, against error and falsehood…the cause of pure and undefiled religion, against bigotry, superstition, and human invention…in short, it is the cause of heaven against hell—of the kind Parent of the Universe against the prince of darkness, and the destroyer of the human race.

Thomas Jefferson, however, believed that America's religiosity had led it to a dangerous point. He undertook, initially in the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (see above) and then in the debate over the Constitution, to lay out the broadest possible definition of religious freedom, based on the unrestricted right to belief and worship free of state coercion. Some of the founders embraced the idea of institutionalizing a state religion, but Jefferson, joined by James Madison and many of the Anti-Federalist camp who opposed a strong national government, won the debate. Article VI of the Constitution prohibits religious tests for federal office, and the First Amendment simultaneously bans the establishment of an official religion and guarantees the free exercise of religion.

Freedom of Religion

To Bigotry No Sanction

While President George Washington and Vice President John Adams were both among those who believed in a role for religion in national life, they were also strong supporters of religious liberty. In 1790, Washington pledged to the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that the new republic would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Article 11 of the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which was signed under Washington and approved by the Senate after Adams became president in 1797, declared that "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." This provision is often cited as a clear, early statement that the U.S. government is religiously neutral.

Wall of Separation

As president, Thomas Jefferson established an even broader constitutional view in a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association in 1802, writing that there should be "a wall of separation between church and state." That phrase has since been cited in many Supreme Court decisions (see below).

Throughout the United States, religious institutions, societies, and practices flourished. This did not mean an end to religious persecution; many acts of violence and repression of religious sects were recorded. But varying religious practices generally found a haven in the expanse of territory that opened up for settlement. African Americans began to separate from discriminatory Protestant churches and established their own denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and black Baptist Churches. Most Americans practiced Protestant Christianity, but Catholic settlements also thrived (Maryland, for example, had been founded as a Catholic colony). Synagogues opened in many locations. Whatever the faith, these free and nongovernmental religious institutions had more than a spiritual function; they served as a bulwark of democracy by mobilizing citizens to act on their own behalf and on behalf of others. As Alexis de Tocqueville described it, all citizens believed religion "to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions."

Freedom of Religion, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court

How the constitutional principles involving freedom of religion should work in practice has been the subject of an ongoing national discussion. Often, the principle of separation of church and state has fallen into conflict with America's popular religiosity, and early decisions of the Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment's Establishment Clause as applying only to the federal government, leaving states with the option of maintaining their own official religions. In the end, the states decided the issue; all had disestablished their respective churches by the 1830s. The 14th Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, has since been interpreted as applying all the protections of the Bill of Rights— including the Establishment Clause— to the states.

Still, many issues remained unclear. In the 1878 case Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court validated a federal law against polygamy despite a Mormon man's claims that the practice was a religious duty for him. The Court, referring to language in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, found that while the Constitution barred Congress from interfering in religious "opinion," it was empowered to regulate "actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order." Reynolds remains an important precedent for laws against polygamy and other practices that some might consider religious duties.

"Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another."

The Principle in Detail

The case that set up contemporary debate and thinking about the meaning of the Establishment Clause was Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing (1947), which involved a New Jersey taxpayer's objection to public funds being used to reimburse the transportation of Catholic school students. By a 5–4 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the practice, but all of the justices agreed with a sweeping opinion in which Justice Hugo Black articulated the meaning of the Establishment Clause:

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect "a wall of separation between church and State."

This was notably the first Supreme Court ruling to conclusively apply the Establishment Clause to the states via the 14th Amendment. Future decisions, upholding the Everson ruling, would end the use of prayer in public schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962), the practice of obligatory Bible reading in public schools (Abington v. Schempp, 1963), and government payment of private school teachers' salaries (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971). But the legal status of situations on the outer boundaries of these cases continues to be debated. For example, the "Lemon Test" established in Lemon v. Kurtzman set guidelines that have been used to regulate state-sponsored public displays. Yet on a single day in 2005, the Supreme Court interpreted Lemon and other precedents in such a way as to strike down one display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse as unconstitutional (McCreary County v. ACLU) and uphold another on a monument outside the Texas State Capitol as constitutional (Van Orden v. Perry), based on subtle differences in context and intent.

Some critics of the Supreme Court believe it has gone too far in restricting or diminishing the role of public religious observance, arguing that the founders never intended the Establishment Clause to forbid all government acknowledgment of religion. Others argue that the separation of church and state has been seriously compromised by recent decisions allowing some displays with religious themes on public property, among other rulings. These vigorous and meticulous debates over practice, worship, belief, and coercion indicate the considerable scope and depth of religious freedom in the United States.