The American Tradition of Religious Freedom- Part 2

This article is part of a series in which we discuss the history and importance of religious freedom in the United States.

You can read our previous article from this series here.

By Ryan Everson

America has long valued the right to religious freedom and was the first nation to have the right enshrined among its founding principles. This constitutional right to the free exercise of religion is embedded in the First Amendment, which reads:

“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.”

The first clause, which restricts the state establishment of a specific religion, is referred to as the establishment clause. While the establishment clause is sometimes used to promote aggressive secularism, that’s not what the Founders had in mind. In fact, George Washington explicitly warned against this mentality in his 1796 Farewell Address. He said, “[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

The Founders wrote the Establishment Clause not because they wanted secularism, but because they wanted religious freedom, including religious plurality. They wanted a nation where Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and yes, non-religious folks could all live together peacefully. Thanks to their genius, that remarkable idea came to fruition.

The second clause, referred to as the Free Exercise Clause, promises Americans more than the ability to live their faith privately, but the ability to live it every day, including in school and in the workplace. The U.S. Supreme Court has established a long line of precedent affirming this right. 

For example, in the 1940s, a New Jersey law allowed local towns to provide either direct transportation or reimbursement to parents of schoolchildren for transportation costs to a school of any kind, including religious schools. This law was challenged as a violation of the Establishment Clause, but the law was upheld by the Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township in 1947. 


Around the same time, New York state allowed a so-called “timed release” when parents could request their children to leave school for a short period of religious instruction. The Supreme Court correctly upheld this law as well. In delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Douglas said, “When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.” Douglas clearly echoed the sentiments of Washington and the Founders here. 

More recent victories for religious freedom include the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which sailed through Congress with bipartisan support in 1993. The Senate passed it by a resounding vote of 97 to 3 and it was signed into law by President Clinton. Upon signing the bill, Clinton said, “Government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.” Despite changing cultural and political tides, Clinton’s words are just as true today as they were then.

Essentially, RFRA strengthened the religious freedom provided by the First Amendment. In doing so, it helped ensure the Supreme Court would not overstep its bounds and misinterpret how religious freedom should be interpreted. 

There have been recent victories for religious freedom at the Supreme Court as well, such as in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. Hobby Lobby’s evangelical owner, David Green, wished to receive an exemption from a federal mandate that required him to provide his employees with contraceptives that could act as abortifacients by terminating a pregnancy after conception. The Court correctly interpreted the First Amendment and struck down the regulation. Interestingly, RFRA was used by the Supreme Court to help justify this decision, because forcing Hobby Lobby to provide these drugs was not the least restrictive means of advancing what the Obama Administration determined to be a compelling government interest. 

The right of individuals to exercise their religion in their everyday life is nearly as old as America itself. Because of this foundational value, every person in the United States has the freedom to peacefully live according to the dictates of his or her consciences without fear of unjust interference. Religious freedom is not just any kind of freedom. It is the most valuable freedom we have.

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Ryan Everson is currently a pro-life policy intern for the Equal Rights Institute and a political journalism intern for the Washington Examiner. He is also an editor for Lone Conservative and a contributor to Live Action News, The College Fix, and The Catholic Sun.

The Resolute Group