Freedom of Religion II

A second paper on this topic provides another student's perspective on 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, freedom of religion guarantees two important elements at the federal level. The first is the prohibition of government on the "establishment of religion," which implies a separation between church and state. Commonly referred to as the "establishment clause," government shall not promote religion. The second element is the Constitution's guarantee that the practice of religion is allowable. 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 during the 19th and 20th centuries 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 300,000 congregations of differing faiths, as high as 71% of Americans claim to belong to a synagogue, church or mosque (Wuthnow and Hodgkinson 1990, 4).

Historic Roots

There have been aspirations for religious freedom as far back as 63 B.C. when Roman involvement with the Jews began. Unrest existed as Jewish groups with conflicting philosophies exerted themselves. 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.-- A.D. 30) had resurrected from the dead, He was hailed by some Jews as the Messiah. Rome viewed Christians as a Jewish movement for decades, and many Romans who had converted to Christianity spoke out against Roman religious oppression (Spielvogel 1997, 194-97).

Centuries later, in Medieval Europe, individuals were often persecuted on religious grounds because church and state interests were so closely intertwined and religious activities had political implications. In 1360, John Wycliffe, a great 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 temporal law. One could be put to death for blasphemy or burned as a heretic. The controlling monarchs and the pulpit 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.

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 creating 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, an affirmation of religious freedom, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1995, was passed. It requires the 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.


The importance of freedom of religion in the United States is paramount when considering how one's belief could infringe on another's. It 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 vast majority of charitable donations in the U.S. are made to religious organizations, showing a clear correlation between philanthropy and religion. This giving pattern "constitutes one of the strongest and most dynamic segments of the entire voluntary effort in American society" (Wuthnow 1990). 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; his executors refused to deliver the funds. The 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 a Frenchman and kin of Girard. Girard bequeathed $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

  • Religious tolerance

  • Separation of church and state

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).

Other important people previously mentioned in this paper are Thomas Jefferson , John Locke , James Madison , and Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire .

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The American Civil Liberties Union , founded in 1920, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan activists group that works daily in courts, legislature and communities. The ACLU strives to maintain and guard the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in the United States of America by its Constitution.

A second valuable organization dealing with freedom of religion is the Institute for First Amendment Studies . Former fundamentalist minister Skipp Porteous and attorney Barbara Simon founded the institute, a 501(c) (3) non-profit educational and research organization, to expose and counter the political activities of the "religious right" in 1984. Today, the institute monitors the rights and freedoms of American citizens by gathering data, preparing newsletters and reports, and supplying information to the public.

A third notable nonprofit organization is the People for the American Way . The nonprofit organizes and mobilizes Americans to fight for fairness, justice, civil rights and the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The majority of the organization's work is conducting research, legal and education work. It also monitors the religious right movement and its political allies. It is a premier source of vital information for policymakers, scholars and activists nationwide.

Bibliography and Internet Resources

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)" [online]. Available: (16 November 2001).

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.

The Gnostic Society Library. "Dead Sea Scrolls" (16 November 2001 ). No longer available.

INDEPENDENT SECTOR. 2001 Giving & Volunteering in the United States: Key Findings [online]. Available: (1 May 2002).

Miller, Howard S. Legal Foundations of American Philanthropy, 1776-1844. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1961.

Pearson, Birger A. "Ancient Roots of Western Philanthropy: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian." Essays on Philanthropy. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1997.

Pitt Taswell-Longmead, Thomas. English Constitutional History. 8th ed. London: Sweet & Maxwell, Ltd, 1919.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: Comprehensive Volume. 3rd ed. Stamford, Connecticut: International Thomson Publishing, 1997. ISBN: 0314096744.

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.

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.