Freedom of Religion

Covers both the origin and basis for concern about religious freedom and its strong ties to the Constitution's First Amendment.


Freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, involves two important components. The first is a prohibition on the "establishment of religion" by government - the separation of Church and State; and the second, ensures that the government allows for the practice of religion (Perry, 10). The Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (Constitution). Also, the Fourteenth Amendment supports freedom of religion as it includes a provision protecting the rights of individuals from the encroachment of state law (Constitution). Many important court cases throughout American history have further helped to refine the limits of freedom of religion as laid out in the Constitution (ACLU).

This paper will provide background on the origins of religious freedom, with a focus on the West - particularly the United States. Freedom of religion is of special importance in the U.S., as this country ranks among the first of the "advanced" democracies in religious faith and practice. Recent studies have shown 70% of adult Americans to be members of Christian or Jewish religious groups and 95% to express faith in God (Perry, 3).

Historic Roots

There is evidence of concern about the freedom of religion from as early as the First Century, A.D. As a Roman convert to Christianity, Tertullian wrote, "we give offense to the Romans, as we are excluded from the rights and privileges of Romans, because we do not worship the Gods of Rome" (Tertullian, 25). He contested poor treatment based on his status as a religious minority. Other individuals of that time, like Tertullian, also promoted religious liberty.

Another historical period in which religious liberty was brought to the forefront was in Medieval Europe. There, in the 13th Century, the historically prominent theologian Thomas Aquinas expressed his views on religious freedom. He had a negative perception about much freedom of religion, especially with regard to heretics. He promoted religious toleration only because as forcing individuals to convert might weaken the Church (Aquinas, 55). Some important thinkers of the time supported the free exercise of religion, although Medieval Europe did persecute individuals on religious grounds, as it allowed the death penalty for blasphemy; heretics were sometimes burned to death (Mullan, 86, 94). This was not only a time in which the imposition of religion concerned some about liberty. Some people also expressed fears about religious pluralism insofar as it had the potential to create conflict (117). Others would later express these same fears as the United States came to include individuals of many religious backgrounds.

In later years, during the Restoration of Europe, John Locke was a vocal supporter of religious "toleration," citing it as key to being a true Christian (Locke, 174). Locke promoted toleration within certain limits (excluding atheists, for example), as did Voltaire and others of his time (Mullan, 187).

These noted beliefs were important components of and background for the establishment of religious freedom in the United States. The ratification of the First Amendment of the Constitution was completed by 1791 (Constitution). The elements of the European movements carried over into the United States, and included toleration of the religious beliefs and practices of others and protection from the imposition of a state religion (Perry, 14). In addition to the Constitution, other important documents promoting religious freedom are the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and the more recent "Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief," adopted by the United Nations in 1981 (38).


Much of the importance of freedom of religion in the United States involves the extent to which a religious groups' practices violate the law or infringe on the liberty of others, or in which the government infringes on religious liberty. Though religious freedom plays an important role in the U.S. and other countries, it is still absent in some countries. This can lead to problems like conflict between religious groups, preventing individuals from forming religious bodies, keeping individuals from engaging in religious practices, or forcing them into the religious practices of others. Important religious freedom issues in the U.S. include the government's use of "religious symbols," science teaching counter to creationism, school prayer, and the use of religious teachings by nonprofit organizations (Perry, 20-2).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Freedom of religion ties into the philanthropic (nonprofit) sector in many ways. Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Constitution, nonprofit organizations are not always held strictly to Constitutional or legal standards. Legal standards affecting freedom of religion as expressed in nonprofits may come into conflict. For instance, the Boy Scouts have been challenged numerously as a Christian boys organization that chooses to exclude atheists and gays (Reilly). Also, the extent to which faith-based nonprofit organizations express their religious values (especially those receiving government funding) has proven to be an area of contention.

Editors Note: All of the religious organizations in the United States exist as key components of the Independent Sector. The vast majority of gifts/donations go to religious organizations. In addition, the philosophical basis for many acts of charity and philanthropy are frequently founded in religious tradition.

Ties to Social Studies

Freedom of religion can be tied into Social Studies in the subjects of American and World History, Government/Civics, and/or Western Civilization. History provides many examples of the development of religious groups and challenges to their freedom, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In many cases, the study of violent conflict involves religious differences between groups. One example of a group whose religious practices have come into conflict with the law, historically, is the Mormons in the United States. Such a case, or other examples of the Church and State coming into contact and conflict, could also be discussed in the context of Government/Civics. Also, religious freedom has played an important role in Western nations, thus making it a good angle from which to approach a course on Western Civilization.

Key Related Areas

Freedom of speech, separation of Church and State, religious conflict, state religions (internationally).

Important People Related to This Topic

Some important people in the history of freedom of religion were described earlier in the "History" section. Important figures in regard to religious freedom in the United States include Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Thomas Jefferson is a critical figure, as a founding father who strongly encouraged religious liberty in the United States (Mullan, 219). John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher who wrote at a time later than Jefferson, promoting diversity and allowing the expression of individual views (244). Reinhold Niebuhr was a 20th Century American ethicist, preaching tolerance of the beliefs of others (281).

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

A crucial organization in relation to freedom of religion is one of the primary defenders of that right - the American Civil Liberties Union. Also the ACLU has taken stances limiting religious freedoms, as they have sometimes placed other civil rights, such as sexual orientation, above religious liberty.

Other important broad-based nonprofit groups promoting religious freedom have been Catholic churches and nonprofit advocacy organizations. To promote this end, the Catholic Church has produced such documents as the 1965 Dignitatis Human Personae, showing a change in views by the Church to greater tolerance of other religions (329). Amnesty International is an international nonprofit striving to protect and promote human rights, including the right of religious freedom.


American Civil Liberties Union: Freedom Network News. NY Times Op-Ed Advertisement, April 14, 1998.

Aquinas, Thomas, in Mullan, ed. Religious Pluralism in the West: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Constitution of the United States. Britannica Online. First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, other text.

Lock, John, in Mullan, ed. Religious Pluralism in the West: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Mullan, David George, ed. Religious Pluralism in the West: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Perry, Michael J. Religion in Politics: Constitutional and Moral Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Tertullian, in Mullan, ed. Religious Pluralism in the West: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

"War on the Boy Scouts: The ACLU's Assault on the Freedom of Association." by Patrick Reilly. Organizational Trends, December 1998.


Suggested Topics by Grade Level

These topics should be preceded by a discussion of the First Amendment or other background on the status of religious freedom in the United States. Many of these scenarios come from actual cases that have taken place in the U.S. with regard to the limits of religious freedoms.

K-Grade 4

  • Should you be made to believe in someone else's religion? Why or why not?

  • Should people learn about each other's religions? Should Christmas symbols be displayed in schools? In public places? What if your religious beliefs do not include Christmas?

  • Should individuals be excused for missing school for religious holidays, as schools allow students to miss for Christmas?

Grades 5-8

  • Should public school students be made to say the pledge of allegiance (mentioning God) if it is not in line with their religious beliefs?

  • Should public schools (funded by the government) be allowed to teach religious principles?

  • Should public schools be able to teach about religion?

  • If some religions treat creation as originating from God, should public schools be able to teach about creation coming about through evolution?

  • Is it okay for a city to display a nativity scene on government property?

Grades 9-12

  • Could prayer be required in a public (government funded) school? A moment of silence?

  • If a person is being sworn into public office, can they be forced to "swear to believe in the existence of God"?

  • Some faith groups' beliefs include polygamy (having more than one wife). Should these groups be made to follow U.S. laws that do not allow polygamy?

  • Amish beliefs include children going to school only through the 8th grade. Should Amish people have to follow state laws that might require children to go to school through the age of 16?

  • Some social service organizations like soup kitchens, are religiously-based. Should they be able to require those benefiting from their assistance to take part in prayer services? Should the government provide funding to an organization that does this?

  • Should the government fund religious colleges?
This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.