Religious liberty has a long and messy history – and there is a reason Americans feel strongly about it

At the close of its recent term the Supreme Court ruled on the cases of Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, rekindling controversy over one of the most enduring issues in American history: religious liberty. Another of this term’s blockbuster decisions, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, underlines the fact that religious beliefs and actions in the public realm matter. Whether the issue concerns religion and education, prayer or reproduction, Americans feel strongly about their religious liberties.

The Carson case came from Maine, where areas with too few students to justify a public high school used public money to pay private schools to educate their students. Under its policy, Maine only allowed nonsectarian private schools or nearby public school districts to receive the funds. Parents who wished to send their students to religious schools argued that the policy discriminated based on religion. The court’s majority agreed, ruling that denying state support to students attending religious schools because their schools were religious violated the First Amendment’s protections on religious freedom.

In the Kennedy case, the court chipped away at decades of rulings that deemed school employees leading prayer an unlawful establishment of religion because it entangled church and state in the act. In the court’s revised view, coach Joseph Kennedy possessed a First Amendment right to privately pray after football games on the 50-yard line, permissible even if students joined him in praying.

Religious liberty is one of the earliest civic values associated with the United States, yet defining and defending it has proved a centurieslong process. Both sides of the courts’ divided opinions claimed to be speaking for religious liberty. This is possible because religious liberty under the Constitution contains both a right to freely exercise religion and a right not to be coerced via the state into accepting someone else’s religious practices.

As historians of American religious history and authors of a recent book, “The Story of Religion in America,” we know that both sides of religious liberty – freedom to exercise one’s own religion and freedom from being forced to support other people’s religions – have a long and important past.

The founders on religious freedom

The Constitution’s First Amendment, adopted in 1791, defended the free exercise of religion and prohibited the founding of a national church. The leading founders on religious liberty and church-state issues were two Virginians, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The problem with religious beliefs, Madison believed, was that most often people could not agree on them. Governments, he argued, therefore had no business supporting religion.

Religion could unite people, but most often it did the opposite, dividing people into opposing sides, each believing their side was sacred. In Madison’s view, therefore, religious differences made it harder to run a government for the common good.

Early American religious liberty

Over 150 years before religious liberty entered the Constitution, however, it lived in the mind and conduct of Roger Williams, a Puritan educated at the University of Cambridge, who challenged Puritan views on religious liberty and the relationship between church and state.

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