Freedom of Religion

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Definition of Philanthropy
Individual Rights
U.S. Constitution
This paper provides a survey of the historic roots and importance of freedom of religion in the founding of the United States and its current influence on our legal, judicial, and philanthropic systems.



As enacted by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1791, Freedom of Religion guarantees two important elements at the federal level. The first prohibits the "establishment of religion" by government, known as the separation of Church and State. The second ensures that the government allows for the practice of religion. The Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (Constitution).  Since the Constitution did not guarantee against state encroachment, the Fourteenth Amendment (1865), known as "due process law," ratified that "any state shall not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without process of law."

Thus, the First and Fourteenth Amendments have been referenced in numerous cases in the Supreme Court regarding freedom of religion. Two particular cases (discussed later in the paper), Philadelphia Baptist Association v. Hart's Executors and Vidal v. Girard, had important ramifications on philanthropy and its connection to freedom of religion.

Today, as in the past, the United States encourages religious freedom and remains the world's largest religiously diversified country. With roughly 350,000 congregations of differing faiths, as high as 50 percent of Americans claim to belong to a synagogue, church, or mosque (Gallup.)

The interpretation of Religious Freedom may continue to be debated by politicians and society alike.  Attendance at religious ceremonies has been declining; only 28 percent of millennials say they attend once a week, and only 38 percent claim religion is very important in their lives. (Pew Research Center, Religious composition of younger Millennials)


Historic Roots

Aspirations for religious freedom go as far back as 63 B.C. with the Roman involvement with the Jews. Unrest existed as Jewish groups with conflicting philosophies exerted themselves under Roman rule. The Sadducees favored a rigid adherence to Hebrew law and denied the idea of personal immortality. During the same time, the Pharisees, were more liberal in their approach to Jewish law. The Essenes, a Jewish sect that lived near the Dead Sea, awaited a Messiah to save Israel from religious and political oppression (Gnostic Society Library, 2001). A fourth group, the Zealots, revolted against the Roman rule in A.D. 66 but was crushed. When claims were circulated that Jesus of Nazareth (6 B.C. to A.D. 30) had resurrected from the dead, He was hailed by some Jews as the Messiah. Rome viewed Christians as part of a Jewish movement for decades, and many Romans who had converted to Christianity spoke out against Roman religious oppression (Spielvogel 1997, 194-97). 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. 

Centuries later, in Medieval Europe, individuals were often persecuted on religious grounds because church and state interests were closely intertwined, and most religious activities had political implications. In 1360, John Wycliffe, a forerunner of the Reformation, translated the Bible into the vernacular English, and his followers distributed it among the people. Given the threat this posed to the Church in Rome, his followers, the Lollards, were seen to have "become political revolutionists as well as religious reformers" (Pitt 1919, 232). During this era, the Church in Rome was effectively superior to the law. One could be put to death for blasphemy (mocking God) or burned as a heretic (a person whose religious views differed from the standard of the church). The controlling monarchs and the heads of the Catholic Church feared that religious pluralism would cause conflict and tyranny. By the 17th and 18th centuries, important figures criticized religious oppression through their writings. John Locke (1632-1704) and Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778) argued against absolute rule and supported religious tolerance. Locke promoted toleration within certain limits (excluding atheists, for example), as did Voltaire and others of his time (Mullan, 187).

These early European figures facilitated a new, liberal conscience that carried over to the New World. In aiding the creation of a new Constitution and the freedoms of the inhabitants that follow its laws, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were instrumental in promoting freedom of religion. Jefferson advocated for a "wall of separation" between one's religious preference and the government. James Madison wrote: "an established religion would be contrary to the general policy of America in offering asylum to the oppressed of every religion and nation." Madison supported the idea that government "cannot touch the sacred right of free conscience" (Frohnmayer 1995, 55-7).

More recently in 1993, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed in an affirmation of religious freedom. This act requires states to show a compelling state interest in justifying any measure restricting religious practices. In regulating a church or religion, the state must use the least restrictive means.

Although it was introduced as a federal law in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton, more than twenty states have since created their own versions of RFRA. One of these states to ratify their own law was Indiana. Although the intent of the law was inherently the same as the federal bill passed, the language was not, and this is what caused the controversy.  Many debated that Indiana’s law allowed for discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Indiana. Pressures from advocates led to a heavily contested amendment to the bill that allowed for more protections to LGBTQ+ employees, customers and tenants, and wthe amended bill was signed into law in April of 2015.


The importance of freedom of religion in the United States is paramount when considering how one's belief could infringe upon another's. Religious freedom protects society from intrusions and discriminations based upon one's chosen faith. It keeps government from intruding upon an individual's private consciousness and spirituality. Not only does this right apply to individuals, but also to groups and associations. Freedom of religion, as stated in the First Amendment, assures one's practice toward the safe keeping of individual creed, so long as that practice is not physically harmful to the public, or infringes on governmental entities.

Problems concerning religion have often filled the Supreme Court, with issues being resolved through interpretations of the Constitution. Such issues included blood transfusions in the Mormon faith, building highways through sacred sites of Native Americans, school prayer, and, more recently, the George W. Bush administration's plan to implement faith-based organizations into a common voucher system to meet philanthropic needs.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The philanthropic sector is connected to religious freedom in numerous ways, from historical to financial to legal. In fact, the ties between philanthropy and religion are ancient. From the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., the Greeks used the term philanthropos as an adjective to describe the gods that presented gifts and benefits to mankind; the term philanthropia became a usual noun in early Greek philosophy. Acts of generosity and service can be found among any group seeking religious freedom, whether the group is the recipient or donor of the gift. The varied religious groups that sought a life free to practice their religion in the New World were often aided by the goodness of other groups, such as the Native Americans assisting the Pilgrims.

Today, the majority of charitable donations in the U.S. are made to religious organizations, showing a clear correlation between philanthropy and religion. (Giving USA) In fact, people who regularly attend religious services both volunteer and give contributions at a much higher rate than people who do not (INDEPENDENT SECTOR 2001).

Yet, there have been conflicts as philanthropy relates to religion, resolved by the Supreme Court interpreting the Constitution. In 1819, in the case of Philadelphia Baptist Association v. Hart's Executors (Miller 1961, 21-3), Silas Hart bequeathed 50 pounds to the Baptist Association of Philadelphia, but his executors refused to deliver the funds. The Baptist Association, in turn, sued. The case was important because its outcome would influence future philanthropic gifts. Chief Justice Marshall ruled in favor of the executors on the grounds that the association was not incorporated at the time of Hart's death in 1795. Justice Marshall accepted the provisions and stipulations set forth by the 1601 Elizabethan Statute of Charitable Uses.

The second important case was Vidal v. Girard in 1844 (Bucknell University 2001). Pennsylvania Common Law, rather than Constitutional Law, was used to decide the case because Vidal was French and kin of Girard. Girard bequeathed (left to someone via a will) $7 million to the city of Philadelphia with the stipulation that the school he requested to be built for orphan boys and poor scholars not include any cleric proselytizing on the property. He did not stipulate whether religion could be taught at the school. Vidal argued the will was anti-Christian. Justice Story ruled that laymen could instruct Christianity for moral principles.

Key Related Ideas

  • Freedom of Association allows citizens of the United States to gather together around beliefs as long as they are not threatening citizens or the state.  This is important for Freedom of Religion due to the fact it allows any religion to gather in a space.
  • Freedom of Speech: This First Amendment right allows any citizen the ability to say whatever they please as long as it does not directly incite violence against a specific person.
  • Separation of Church and State: There is an important distinction between Church and State.  The separation of the two within the United States is important due to the fact it does not allow the government to meddle in the religion of its citizens.  It also is a defense not allowing the government to have a state-run religion.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an English liberal philosopher who wrote Liberty (1859). In the work, Mill made a case for an "absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects" (Spielvogel 1997, 749-50). He believed this freedom needed to be separate from government.
  • William Penn, known as the founder of Pennsylvania, established a government with a representative assembly and guaranteed all inhabitants common English civil liberties and complete freedom of worship (Bremner, 1988, 9-11).
  • Billy Graham, (1918-2018) was an evangelist and minister known for his international rallies.  He pushed for racial integration and worked hand in hand with Martin Luther King Jr.  Furthermore, he pushed for people to find a relationship between the Bible and secular viewpoints.
  • Francis Chan (1967-Present) is a pastor, author a chancellor of a bible university.  He started several of the largest churches in in Ventura California, called Cornerstone.  He authored several best-selling books regarding religion and the church including Crazy Love and Letters to the Church.
  • Other important people previously mentioned in this paper are Thomas Jefferson, John Locke , James Madison , and Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire .

Related Nonprofit Organizations

There are several nonprofits fighting to secure Americans' right to freely associate based on their religion.  The Alliance Defending Freedom Advocates was created in 1994 on the basis of Christians, no matter what denomination, could have legal support in battles regarding strictly religious freedoms cases.

Founded in 1994, Becket exists to defend the free exercise of all faiths, from Anglican to Zoroastrian.  Becket is a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.

An organization fighting for these freedoms for Americans both locally and abroad and founded in 1998 is the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. “USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, the first of its kind in the world, dedicated to defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. USCIRF reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the Congressional leadership of both political parties.”


Here are a few questions to ponder regarding religious freedom within the United States. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, rather, they are here to guide a group into deeper conversation.

  1. Should government play any role in religion or vice versa?  If so, what is the extent of that role?
  2. Can a city or township display religious symbols on government property? 
  3. Can students pray in school outside of the curriculum?  If no, is this infringing on their right to assemble or freedom of speech?


  • Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN: 0-226-07325-4.
  • Bucknell University. "Vidal v. Girard, 43 US 127 (1844)"
  • Choper, Jesse H. Securing Religious Liberty: Principles for Judicial Interpretation of the Religious Clauses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN: 0226104451.
  • Frohnmayer, John. Out of Tune: Listening to the First Amendment. Golden, Colorado: North American Press, 1995. ISBN: 1555919324.
  • Gallup: Five Key Findings on Religion in the US, 2016
  • Giving USA. Special Report on Giving to Religion, 2017
  • INDEPENDENT SECTOR. 2001 Giving & Volunteering in the United States: Key Findings 
  • Lock, John, in Mullan, ed. Religious Pluralism in the West: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
  • Miller, Howard S. Legal Foundations of American Philanthropy, 1776-1844. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1961.
  • Mullan, David George, ed. Religious Pluralism in the West: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
  • Pearson, Birger A. "Ancient Roots of Western Philanthropy: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian." Essays on Philanthropy. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1997.
  • Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: Comprehensive Volume. 3rd ed. Stamford, Connecticut: International Thomson Publishing, 1997. ISBN: 0314096744.
  • Tertullian, in Mullan, ed. Religious Pluralism in the West: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
  • Wuthnow, Robert, Virginia Hodgkinson et al. Faith and Philanthropy in America: Exploring the Role of Religion in America's Voluntary Sector. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990. ISBN: 1555422527.
  • “Younger Millennials - Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, May 11, 2015.


This briefing paper was authored by a student in the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.  The graduate student is participating in the Applied Philanthropic Studies Program.