The United States is populated by a rich patchwork of diverse communities. For many communities, the quest for freedom of religion and belief was a central theme to its establishment, as early settlers sought a land where they could practice their faith with like-minded others, free from the horrors of persecution. Ironically, some seeking freedom from religious persecution became religious persecutors themselves in their new homeland.
After the Revolutionary War, the new nation faced the challenge of creating a national government that would unify the diverse states and its people under a democratic model. Addressing religious differences was an important piece of that puzzle. The states were comprised of different religious majorities and had varying laws in support of those majorities. To preserve their hard-fought freedoms, many citizens, notably those of minority religious groups, demanded that a bill of rights be added to the United States Constitution to guarantee various personal freedoms and reserve some powers to the states and public. The religion clauses of the First Amendment were the negotiated result of efforts to guarantee freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment established the “first freedom” on the ground of sixteen famous words, stating that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free expression thereof....” Yet, as momentous as this achievement was, this right applied only to the federal government. Each state government remained free to address matters of religion as it chose. Catholics, Jews, non-theists, and other minorities continued to suffer state-approved discrimination for years to come.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of developments significantly altered the religious composition of the United States. In the mid-1800s, waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants began flooding into the country. At the same time, homegrown religious movements were fast multiplying. Chinese and Japanese immigrants brought Asian religions at the beginning of the 20th century, and a secondary influx of Jews arrived on the heels of World War II. With substantial changes to immigration laws in 1965, even greater religious diversity colored the American landscape.
As these demographic shifts were continuing, the 1940s saw a legal development with far-reaching outcomes for religious liberty. In a series of decisions, the United States Supreme Court extended the interpretation of the word “liberty” in the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause (a clause established during judicial proceeding to safeguard the legal rights of the individual) to include other freedoms in the Bill of Rights (the doctrine of incorporation). As a result, the First Amendment became legally applicable to state and local governments.
Yet, despite the expanded legal protections and a greater acceptance of previously disadvantaged groups, some faith communities still struggle to receive religious recognition and equal rights. In some areas of the United States, they continue to battle religious discrimination.
Topic: The United States has become a country of great religious diversity. The treatment of religious minorities is considered by many to be the true measure of a government’s guarantee of religious freedom.
- Select a minority religion from any time period in U.S. history; then
- Research and analyze its history in your local community, state or region, as it applies to religious freedom and equality; and
- Also research and evaluate this religious group’s history in the broader narrative of U.S. history and First Amendment law.
How well has this religious group fared historically in its pursuit of freedom of religion and equality in your locality and in the United States? Where does it stand today?