George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

A Lasting Precedent: How America has Upheld Washington’s Promise of Religious Freedom

By Colin Martin

Teacher: Mr. Heino

Class: Honors US History

Date: 26 March 2014

The United States of America was grounded on one major principle: religious freedom. Nearly 400 years later, support for this freedom is as strong as when the Pilgrims landed aboard the Mayflower in 1620. Religious freedom and expression for all Americans has been at the heart of this great nation in its entire existence, from the colonial days to the turn of the new millennia. George Washington, the nations first and arguably greatest president, set forth his expectations on how the government will uphold its citizen’s religious liberty in his 1790 letter of reassurance to Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Washington’s criteria for a religiously-neutral government, conscience of the people’s right to freedom of worship and one unhesitant to defend its inhabitants rights if endangered set a precedent of religious freedom for generations to come. Since George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation, his unyielding standards of religious freedom and expression for all Americans have been vigorously supported by the federal government throughout the history of this country.

Support for Washington’s statement of religious freedom was implemented long before he issued it, and over a century before he was even alive. In fact, the country hadn’t even been developed yet. America’s first settlers, the Pilgrims, were stricken out of England for practicing their Puritan faith in a country where the Catholic Church’s new reforms weighed heavily on the nation, independent congregations were outlawed and Anglicanism was the supreme religion of the land. Facing persecution at the hands of their own countrymen, this select group of English men and women emigrated to a seldom-known world across the Atlantic Ocean to seek out their own religious liberty. After long, harsh, winters and periods of starvation, disease, and turmoil, the Pilgrims established a solid foundation on which this new and once fabled land of religious freedom could be built. Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620, set a precedent for the future thirteen colonies of the United States of America—six of which (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland) were founded solely on the basis of religious freedom for all of its citizens. While certain colonies were originally designated for a particular religion (Maryland and Pennsylvania, for example, for Catholics and Quakers, respectively), towards the turn of the eighteenth-century many of the colonies were a religious melting pot. “Religious diversity had become a dominant part of colonial life. The colonies were a patchwork of religiously diverse communities and, as a result, religious persecution was beginning to diminish and religious freedom began to replace it” (Brewer, Jaques, and Jones). Nowhere else in the world had a populace thrived under religious freedom, as well as even existed. Movements such as the Great Awakening at the start of the eighteenth-century further pushed the cause of religious freedom in America, as well as brought forth the concept to light in other parts of the world. When the time came around to rally for American independence from Britain, colonists were already united by the principle of religious freedom for all citizens, a driving force in wanting to establish a new nation. Once its own independence was established, it was then only fitting to put a man in office who would stand for the principles the nation needed—and George Washington was a perfect fit for the protection of religious freedom.

Washington’s 1790 statement on religious freedom where “the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, [and] to persecution no assistance” has proven true time and time again in both American history and in the court of law. Dating back to the late 1700’s, when the Constitution was first being drafted, there needed to be a fine line between government and religion, or as Thomas Jefferson put it, “a wall of separation between church and state.” The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution, located within the First Amendment, state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Introduction to the Establishment Clause). This first line falls in exactly with what Washington wrote to Seixas in his letter, as the government cannot favor one religion over another or establish an official faith for the country. With the Constitution being the supreme law of the land, there shall be no disputes over this clause, and any questions arising over potential religious violations made by the government will be referred to this, and either deemed unconstitutional or dismissed. The first victory for a plaintiff challenging state religious practices under the Establishment Clause came in 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in McCollum v. Board of Education that the practice of inviting religious instructors into the public school system for “optional classes” was in violation of the clause. Since this first landmark case, there have been numerous cases brought to the Supreme Court accusing states with violating the Establishment Clause by hanging school prayer banners or imposing moments of silence in the school day, both of which have been ruled to be in line with religious coercion.

Great religious controversy was stirred up not too long ago in the State of Rhode Island, when in 2012 a Cranston West high-schooler named Jessica Ahlquist challenged her high school’s prayer banner to be unconstitutional, citing it violated her rights as an atheist per the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Though Ahlquist received harsh criticism from members of the community (including State Representative Peter Palumbo, who referred to Ahlquist as an “evil little thing”), the principle of religious freedom for all faiths, and Washington’s promise of zero bigotry on the government’s behalf, were the determining factors in her case being heard and ultimately overruling the City of Cranston. It is important to note that even in this case, while the plaintiff was an atheist (firmly believing there is no God), she still received the justice she deserved under the Constitution as the government could not favor the defendants, or Catholics. It was per the Establishment Clause, and Washington’s promise of impartialness when it comes to the government and the citizen’s faith, that a mere high school student could take on Rhode Island’s third-largest city, tens of thousands of backers and over five decades of tradition and win her case. Ahlquist v. Cranston proved to America that even two and a half centuries later, George Washington’s promise of religious freedom to the people would be upheld at all costs.

No one principle has set America apart from the rest of the world than religious freedom, and after over 200 years since that freedom was first established it still holds true today. More denominations encompassing all faiths than Washington could have imagined have arisen since his 1790 letter to Moses Seixas and the Hebrew Congregation, however despite their differences all people in this land are united by one principle: to freely worship, if they choose to do so, any god of their choosing, and in any Constitutionally abiding way they elect. Though conflicts concerning religion have surfaced many times in this country, the federal government has made it a point to protect the rights of the individual and their faith over the majority, per the Constitution and Washington’s precedent of religious freedom. This great nation was founded on the core belief of religious freedom and expression for all. Much has changed from 1790 to 2014; however the once-revolutionary standard of religious freedom has been visibly supported by the United States government, and thankfully so unswayed in its purpose.

Word Count: 1,249

Works Cited

BBC News UK. “Why the Pilgrim Fathers left England.” 18 January 1998. BBC News UK. Web. 24 March 2014.

Brewer, Lawanda, et al. “Religion in Colonial America.” 2001. Web. 24 March 2014.

“Introduction to the Establishment Clause.” n.d. Exploring Constitutional Conflicts. Web. 25 March 2014.

Washington, George. “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.” 1790. “Ahlquist v. Cranston.” 26 February 2014. Web. 25 March 2014.

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