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Freedom of religion, the why and how

The story of America is the story of the individual and the protection of the individual from government, from the powerful, from those who “know better” than we do. Our country was shaped by those who knew the feeling of powerlessness in the face of an oppressive government. Who, as individuals even banding together in common cause against the British government and ruled by a king with near dictatorial powers, felt helpless to control their own destinies. So they resolved that, after we became a nation, the American people would not be subject to dominating treatment from a government of their own creation. And so, we have the Bill of Rights. And what the Bill of Rights does in part is deny government or powerful people the ability to use their power to compel the individual American to conform to arbitrary social standards.

We have the Constitution written in 1787 that establishes the method of government and the Bill of Rights passed by Congress in 1789 and ratified by the states in 1791 to limit the ability of that government to control the individual, to make the individual conform to standards that are against their beliefs. The Federalists, who played a large part in writing the Constitution, were confronted by the anti-Federalists who felt that there needed to be a listing of enumerated rights — freedoms and protections for the individual. When the ratification of the Constitution bogged down Congress passed twelve such enumerated rights for the states to consider. The Federalists felt that the Constitution would protect the rights without listing them, but the anti-Federalist felt that, “to make assurance doubly sure” (to quote MacBeth), they needed to be listed. The states ratified ten of them which became the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

There are reasons why we have these constitutional safeguards. Take our First Amendment wording on freedom of religion; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The purpose of that clause was to protect the practice of whatever religion a citizen wanted, without fear of punishment or retribution. We learned in grade school that the Puritans fled to the American continent because their religious practices were censured in England because it differed from the state religion which was the Church of England. Once in America, the Puritans were free to practice their religion in peace, and they were then also free to condemn those who had a different religion from theirs. Roger Williams, even though a Puritan minister, was banned from Massachusetts because he preached what to the Puritans was heresy. He founded the colony of Rhode Island which thereafter allowed the free practice of religion.

In Virginia in 1617 the penalty for not attending Church of England services was a week of slavery to the colony. A second offense was a month, a third a year.

The Bill of Rights was adopted by the states in 1791 but did not then necessarily apply to all the states. In Connecticut the “official” religion was the Congregationalist Church which was granted tax money from the state and whose members became the elite of Connecticut. In 1801 a congregation of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote to newly elected President Jefferson to express their concerns that they were being treated as second class citizens. “What religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” 

Jefferson replied: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

When we object to certain portions of our enumerated freedoms which form the basis of laws with which we may disagree, such as what some call the “War on Christianity,” look to history to explain why they are there.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.


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