Timeline: Religious Liberty


The Massachusetts General Court drafts the first broad statement of American liberties, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. The document includes a right to petition and a statement about due process.



Rhode Island grants religious freedom.



Publication of John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. It provides the philosophical basis for George Mason's proposed Article Sixteen of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, which deals with religion. Mason's proposal provides that "all Men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion."



Connecticut passes first dissenter statute and allows "full liberty of worship" to Anglicans and Baptists.



The State of Virginia jails fifty Baptist worshipers for preaching the Gospel contrary to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.



Eighteen Baptists are jailed in Massachusetts for refusing to pay taxes that support the Congregational Church.



Thomas Jefferson completes his first draft of a Virginia state bill for religious freedom, which states: "No man shall be forced to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever." The bill later becomes the famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.



The Virginia legislature adopts the Ordinance of Religious Freedom, which disestablishes the Anglican Church as the official church and prohibits harassment based on religious differences.



Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance. Though primarily a law establishing government guidelines for colonisation of new territory, it also provides that "religion, morality and knowledge being necessary also to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."



Ratification of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment reads: "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."



On December 15, Virginia becomes the eleventh state to approve the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.



Andrew Jackson opposes the inclusion of the word "God" in Tennessee's constitution.



The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, The amendment, in part, requires that no state shall deprive "any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."



Georgia, Massachusetts and Connecticut finally ratify the Bill of Rights.



In Everson v. Board. of Education, the Supreme Court upholds a state program which reimburses parents for money spent on transporting their children to parochial schools. The Court finds that the state provision of free bus transportation to all school children amounts only to a general service benefit and safeguards children rather than aiding religion.


The Supreme Court rules that a state-composed, non-denominational prayer violates the No Establishment clause of the First Amendment. In Engel v. Vitale, the Court states that such a prayer represents government sponsorship of religion.



The Supreme Court finds that a South Carolina policy denying unemployment compensation to a Seventh Day Adventist refusing to work on Saturdays is in violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. In Sherbert v. Verner, the Court determines that a law which has the unintended effect of burdening religious beliefs will be upheld only when it is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling state objective.



In Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court invalidates an Arkansas statute prohibiting public school teachers to teach evolution. The Court finds that the statute violates the No Establishment clause because it bans the teaching of evolution solely on religious grounds.



In Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the Supreme Court rules against members of a Native American church who in their rituals used illegal hallucinogenic peyote. Most Native American religious leaders find this an offensive intrusion into the protected sphere of religion.

The Supreme Court effectually emasculates the 1963 ruling by stating that a law that is neutral with respect to religion, even though it may result in restricting some religious practices, is not unconstitutional.



The Supreme Court determines in Lee v. Weisman that an administrative policy allowing religious invocations at public high school graduation ceremonies violates the No Establishment clause.


The Supreme Court finds in Boerne v. Flores that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is unconstitutional. The Court states that it is not within the constitutional powers of the Congress to tell courts how to interpret the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.



Congress considers a new version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act-the Religious Liberty Protection Act.


Congress passes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to the 1990 Supreme Court decision, which was widely condemned as restricting religious faith.



In Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia, the Supreme Court invalidates a policy denying funds to a Christian student newspaper on free-speech and No Establishment clause grounds. The Court finds that, once a public university chooses to fund some student viewpoints, it may not choose which viewpoints to fund.


[Source: American Studies Journal, 42, Winter 1998, pp. 7-9.]