Freedom of religion is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits laws establishing a national religion or impeding the free exercise of religion for its citizens. While the First Amendment enforces the “separation of church and state” it doesn’t exclude religion from public life. From the colonial era to present, religion has played a major role in politics in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court over the years has ruled inconsistently on matters of religious freedom, such as the display of religious symbols in government buildings.

Religion In Colonial America

America wasn’t always a stronghold of religious freedom. More than half a century before the Pilgrims set sail in the Mayflower, French Protestants (called Huguenots) established a colony at Fort Caroline near modern-day Jacksonville, Florida.

The Spanish, who were largely Catholic and occupied much of Florida at the time, slaughtered the Huguenots at Fort Caroline. The Spanish commander wrote the king that he had hanged the settlers for “scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.”

The Puritans and Pilgrims arrived in New England in the early 1600s after suffering religious persecution in England. However, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony didn’t tolerate any opposing religious views. Catholics, Quakers and other non-Puritans were banned from the colony.

Roger Williams

In 1635 Roger Williams, a Puritan dissident, was banned from Massachusetts. Williams then moved south and founded Rhode Island. Rhode Island became the first colony with no established church and the first to grant religious freedom to everyone, including Quakers and Jews.

As Virginia’s governor in 1779, Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill that would guarantee the religious freedoms of Virginians of all faiths—including those with no faith—but the bill did not pass into law.

Religion was mentioned only once in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution prohibits the use of religious tests as qualification for public office. This broke with European tradition by allowing people of any faith (or no faith) to serve in public office in the United States.

First Amendment

In 1785, Virginia statesman (and future president) James Madison argued against state support of Christian religious instruction. Madison would go on to draft the First Amendment, a part of the Bill of Rights that would provide constitutional protection for certain individual liberties including freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, and the rights to assemble and petition the government.

The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791. It established a separation of church and state that prohibited the federal government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also prohibits the government, in most cases, from interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices.

The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, extended religious freedom by preventing states from enacting laws that would advance or inhibit any one religion.

Religious Intolerance In the United States

Mormons, led by Joseph Smith, clashed with the Protestant majority in Missouri in 1838. Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs ordered that all Mormons be exterminated or expelled from the state.

At Haun’s Mill, Missouri militia members massacred 17 Mormons on October 30, 1838.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. government subsidized boarding schools to educate and assimilate Native American children. At these schools, Native American children were prohibited from wearing ceremonial clothes or practicing native religions.

While most states followed federal example and abolished religious tests for public office, some states maintained religious tests well into the twentieth century. Maryland, for instance, required “a declaration of belief in God,” for all state officeholders until 1961.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

Reynolds v. United States (1878): This Supreme Court case tested the limits of religious liberty by upholding a federal law banning polygamy. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment forbids government from regulating belief but not from actions such as marriage.

Braunfeld v. Brown (1961): The Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring stores to close on Sundays, even though Orthodox Jews argued the law was unfair to them since their religion required them to close their stores on Saturdays as well.

Sherbert v. Verner (1963): The Supreme Court ruled that states could not require a person to abandon their religious beliefs in order to receive benefits. In this case, Adell Sherbert, a Seventh-day Adventist, worked in a textile mill. When her employer switched from a five-day to six-day workweek, she was fired for refusing to work on Saturdays. When she applied for unemployment compensation, a South Carolina court denied her claim.

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): This Supreme Court decision struck down a Pennsylvania law allowing the state to reimburse Catholic schools for the salaries of teachers who taught in those schools. This Supreme Court case established the “Lemon Test” for determining when a state or federal law violates the Establishment Clause—that’s the part of the First Amendment that prohibits the government from declaring or financially supporting a state religion.

Ten Commandments Cases (2005): In 2005, the Supreme Court came to seemingly contradictory decisions in two cases involving the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. In the first case, Van Orden v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled that the display of a six-foot Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capital was constitutional. In McCreary County v. ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two large, framed copies of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses violated the First Amendment.

Muslim Travel Bans

In 2017, federal district courts struck down the implementation of a series of travel bans ordered by President Donald J. Trump, citing that the bans—which discriminate against the citizens of several Muslim-majority nations—would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.


America’s True History of Religious Tolerance;
Religious Liberty: Landmark Supreme Court Cases; Bill of Rights Institute.
First Amendment; Legal Information Institute.