“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment, which was adopted December 15th 1791, protects some of the most important rights Americans enjoy today – including the freedom of the people to practice religion as they see fit. It stops the government from prohibiting most religious practices or punishing those who adhere to any faith.
What is Freedom of Religion?
The First Amendment prevents the government from establishing a national religion. Many other countries have laws dictating the religion the state endorses. For example, nations like Saudi Arabia mandate that Islam is the country’s official religion, and people who do not follow the commands of Islamic law could be jailed or punished by the Saudi government.
While some countries do not establish a state religion, they do have laws that prevent certain people from practicing their faith. The Chinese government is known for its treatment of both Christians and Muslims. They routinely imprison Christians if they publicly profess their faith. And over the past few years, the nation has also rounded up Chinese Muslims and kept them in concentration camps. The Founding Fathers of the United States wished to ensure that the government could never become like such nations.
Why is this Right Protected?
The Puritans and pilgrims who traveled to North America in the early 1600s were fleeing religious persecution at the hands of England’s government. They embraced Christian beliefs that were not in line with the Church of England, and so they were subject to brutal treatment.
But the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not accept other religious views. They punished Quakers, Catholics, and other faiths by banishing them. A man named Roger Williams, who was a Puritan protesting this practice, moved to Rhode Island in 1635 and founded the first colony that did not have an official church or religion and allowed Quakers and Jews to reside there.
The Founding Fathers realized that if they were going to protect liberty, they needed to make sure that the government could not have any undue influence on religious practice. This is why they included freedom of religion in the First Amendment. In this way, they prevented many of the religious conflicts that have plagued other countries.
In 1779, Thomas Jefferson – who was then governor of Virginia – drafted a bill that would protect religious freedom. Unfortunately, the legislation did not pass. But later, in 1791, it was made into law through the First Amendment. There have been debates over the centuries about what type of religious practices should be safeguarded. But for the most part, Americans living today do not need to fear persecution from the government based on their religion, due to the actions of those who understood the necessity of keeping the state out of faith.