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Religious freedom was originally identified as a fundamental right when Enlightenment thinkers began to question whether political society has the obligation, or even the right, to decide its citizens’ religion. At the time, the widespread conclusion was that religious toleration and freedom of belief were preferable to religious uniformity and faith-based oppression. Around the same time in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, political documents began to identify religious freedom as a fundamental, legally-protectable right with which the state had no right to interfere. Among the first western states to legislate freedom of religion were the English North American colony of Rhode Island, a few of its fellow American colonies, and the United States itself. There was some historical precedent for ideas relevant to religious toleration in the form of the 1598 Edict of Nantes and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, but the Rhode Island Charter and the United States Constitution were among the first documents to completely prohibit governments from interfering in their citizens’ religious affairs.
The founding of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is credited to Roger Williams, a preacher who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 and went on to purchase from the Narragansett Native Americans a plot of land that would become the city of Providence, Rhode Island (Smithsonian Institution, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea”). He was banished for holding religious views that contrasted with those upon which the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, and it is likely that this experience influenced his thoughts about religious freedom and the value of toleration within political society. He expresses these views quite effectively in his 1644 work, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, which states that “the permission of other consciences and worships than a state professeth, only can (according to God) procure a firm and lasting peace, (good assurance being taken according to the wisdom of civil state for uniformity of civil obedience from all forts)” (Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution,”). The Rhode Island Charter, which Williams secured from Parliament in July 1663, reflects this view. It states that:
"No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of lance hereafter mentioned." (“Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations - July 15, 1663”)
By prohibiting the molestation, punishment, disquieting, and questioning of any citizen on the basis of religion, the Charter sets a clear guarantee that those living within the colony had the legal right to religious freedom. This was groundbreaking not only because it was the first of the thirteen original American colonies to guarantee total religious freedom, but also because unlike most contemporary acts of toleration, the Charter did not exclude Quaker and Jewish citizens from enjoying the religious freedom that it promised.
Of course, Rhode Island was not the only one of the thirteen original American colonies to identify religious freedom as a fundamental, legally protectable right. Colonies like Maryland and Pennsylvania are also noteworthy for their inclusion of religious groups that made up the English minority. Maryland famously welcomed Catholics inside its borders, and Pennsylvania was originally founded as a Quaker colony under William Penn. As the colonies grew they became examples to contemporary Enlightenment thinkers, who looked to their example as proof that religious toleration was a desirable principle within any system of government. In his work on religious toleration, Voltaire writes of Philadelphia that “discord and controversy are unknown in the happy country they have made for themselves; and the very name of their chief town, Philadelphia, which unceasingly reminds them that all men are brothers, is an example and a shame to nations that are yet ignorant of toleration” (Voltaire, “Toleration and Other Essays - Online Library of Liberty,”). The benefits of religious freedom were well-known by the time of the American Revolution, which explains why religious freedom was such an important building block of the early republic. The Constitution of the United States was also one of the first documents to identify religious freedom as a fundamental, legally protectable right. Its First Amendment states that “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” (“United States Bill of Rights, Amendment I”). The inclusion of this language in such an influential document represents an important step in the identification of religious freedom as a fundamental legal right.
It should be noted, however, that the First Amendment does not explicitly separate church and state within the United States government. The principle of church and state separation was not explicitly outlined until 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson outlined it in a letter to the Baptist community of Danbury, Connecticut. It was written in response to community leaders’ complaint that religious freedom was being treated as a privilege, not a right within their state. They wrote that “our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty--that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals--that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions--that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors” (“Jefferson's Wall of Separation Letter”). In response, Jefferson famously asserted that “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” (“Jefferson's Wall of Separation Letter”). This separation to which he refers is built upon Enlightenment ideals set out by thinkers like Locke and Spinoza, and it represents the realization of a movement for religious freedom that originated centuries before with the Protestant Reformation.
Religious freedom is a right with a long history, and for centuries after it first came into question within the western world it was debated and considered. Thinkers like Locke and Voltaire championed it, and documents such as the Treaty of Westphalia and the Edict of Nantes made important strides toward realizing it as a legally protectable right. However, many of the first true instances of legally protected religious freedom occurred in American documents such as the Rhode Island Charter and the United States Constitution. These landmark pieces of legislation framed the modern American stance on religious toleration and the right to freedom of belief.
John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Jan. 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/god-government-and-roger-williams-big-idea-6291280/
“Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations - July 15, 1663”)
“Jefferson's Wall of Separation Letter,” https://www.usconstitution.net/jeffwall.html
United States Bill of Rights
Voltaire, Voltaire. Toleration and Other Essays. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1755. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/mccabe-toleration-and-other-essays.
Roger Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution”
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