What is the Meaning of Religious Freedom?
by MOLLY PITCHER
August 8, 2012
From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. Both the leaders and the people themselves would soon forget the importance of these principles and stop fighting for their preservation.
Thomas Jefferson, 1782 1
Virginia's initial draft of the Declaration of Rights and constitution was written by George Mason, who drawing from John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, wrote:
All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless, under color of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of society, or of individuals. 2
James Madison proposed,
All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished, and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless the preservation of equal liberty and the existence of the State are manifestly endangered.3
With this language, Madison turned freedom of conscience into a "Natural and absolute right."4
James Madison, father of our country, was nothing short of brilliant when putting forth an argument for what he believed truth. One of the clearest examples of his power of reason took place in a debate with Patrick Henry over "A Bill for Establishing a Provision for the Teachers of the Christian Religion." 5
The bill was intended to encourage religion through taxation and was based on a widely held belief that Christianity guided men's morals, restrained their vices, and helped to preserve the peace. Patrick Henry's bill had wide support, including that of George Washington. With his bill, "Voters could designate the denomination or even the specific church that their tax dollars would go to. Those who didn't want to support religion could target their tax dollars toward education more broadly."6
Madison believed a bill of this nature was a threat to religious freedom. He argued that when civil authority is brought in to aid religion it must necessarily define religion. Pretty soon government would be determining editions, translations, and what books to include in the bible. Government would determine whether salvation comes from faith or works. Government would determine whether members of society are sufficiently Christian or apostates. Only one government uniform view of religious faith would become acceptable. The state would apply criminal penalties for some religious behavior. 7
Though Madison's arguments were not initially persuasive enough, the passage of a proposal to incorporate the Episcopal Church and allow it to keep land it had been given at taxpayer expense during the years of the Anglican establishment brought more support to his side of the debate. This bill showed that the intervention of the state would benefit some over others. It wasn't until he wrote "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" that Madison was able to bring Patrick Henry's bill to a complete halt. In it, he writes,
Each person should not only be free to follow his own conscience but also recognize that his neighbor's spiritual journey is sacred. ..no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society... Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance...if we can start to chip away and qualify freedom of religion, we will be able to erode other freedoms. Soon unscrupulous tyrants will use religious leaders as tools to make their mischief. Rulers, who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found established Clergy convenient auxiliaries." 8
Within the Bill of Rights it says,
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 U.S. Constitution and subsequent Bill of Rights was a national document.
"During the decade after independence was declared, only Virginia and Rhode Island offered full religious tolerance. New Jersey, Vermont, North Carolina, and Georgia retained their bans on Catholics holding office. Maryland prohibited non-Christians. Delaware required that officeholders subscribe to "Trinitarian" Christianity. Pennsylvania demanded that lawmakers "acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration." In Connecticut and Massachusetts, taxes went to support the Congregational Church. South Carolina's constitution declared that "the Christian religion is the true religion."9
It would take the states many years to change this status quo and a civil war to force the states to pursue laws recognizing that all men were created equal and had inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Eventually, the federal Bill of Rights was incorporated to the states via the 14th Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.
In our country's infancy, it was James Madison who recognized that a "multiplicity of sects, which pervades America ... is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest."10
Just like we can learn from our elders, we can learn from the country's founders. Do not forget the importance of the words in our Declaration of Independence and why we fought for these freedoms. Inviting the government to determine what we can believe or to establish a religious test to block or allow the establishment of a business is wrong. Only an individual can determine what he/she believes. No one can dictate to another person what they must believe or remove another's inalienable rights in the pursuit of a belief system. Gays and Lesbians do not have to subscribe to a Christian belief system and if they want to be "married" outside of a church, another belief system should not dictate what they can and cannot do. The definition of marriage is clear within the church. Those who subscribe to that belief system should not have to yield to a government definition of religion. A civil union or civil marriage is not necessarily connected to a particular religious belief and unless a gay couple is a member of a church that recognizes gay marriage, then they have the right to be recognized in a civil marriage.
1-10 Founding Faith by Steven Waldman
About the Author
Molly Pitcher is an American Revolutionary War heroine. She not only brought water to soldiers during the War for Independence, but she helped man the cannons. She is sometimes referred to as Captain Molly or Sergeant Molly because General Washington issued her a warrant as an officer, in recognition of her efforts during battle.