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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious discrimination by the U.S. Government

Introduction to "The First Freedom"

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The first freedom, at the birth of America:

Religious freedom is often called "the first freedom" because of its paramount importance to the public.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were quite aware of the devastation caused in their past by religious hatred in Europe. Germany was one example: about one third of their population had died during religiously motivated wars. The founders decided that a church/state separation was their best assurance that the U.S. would remain relatively free of inter-religious conflict. Many commentators feel that over two centuries of relative religious peace in the U.S. have shown that they were right. Many also regard the principle of separation of church and state is one of the most important gifts that America has given the world.

In 1789, the first of ten amendments were written to the Federal Constitution; they have since been known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment begins:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

This was ratified by the States in 1791.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, proposed by Congress on 1866-JUN-16, required individual states to also follow the Bill of Rights. The 14th Amendment states that:

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

The 14th Amendment was proclaimed adopted on 1868-JUL-21. Since that date, the First Amendment, and other amendments guaranteeing rights to citizens, apply equally to all levels of government. 1 No government office can restrict the free exercise of religion.

But they still try.

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The first freedom, now:

Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) wrote in the court's 1992 ruling in the Lee v. Weisman case:

"When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some." 2

By the same argument, when a government refuses to recognize a minority religion, or discriminates in favor of a particular branch of Christianity -- the majority religion -- it reduces some of its citizens to second-class status.

The United States and Canada have become the most religiously diverse countries in the world. In other lands and at other times, the stress of religious pluralism has escalated into open conflict and civil war. Some countries in Europe lost a third of their populations in wars triggered by the Protestant Reformation. Two recent examples of religiously-motivated genocide and civil war are:

bulletThe genocide perpetrated by Serbian Orthodox Christians in the 1990s in Bosnia Herzegovina mainly against Muslims.

bulletThe civil war currently active in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq.

In the U.S. and Canada, the principle of separation of church and state (actually religion and government) protects us against serious religious conflict . Unfortunately, this principle is currently under attack by some religious groups who seek special treatment, and by other groups who wish to deny equal treatment to minority religions.

Our belief is that if the governments stay out of religion and promote religious freedom and tolerance, both countries will continue to enjoy relative religious peace. But when federal governments actively engage in religious discrimination and bigotry, they contribute to the potential for conflict.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Barefoot Windwalker, "The Constitution for the United States: Its sources and its application," Barefoot's World at: http://www.barefootsworld.net/
  2. U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Agostini v. Felton (1997), at: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/

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