Inherent Natural Rights
This nation’s founders were the inheritors of the seventeenth-century natural rights philosophers, particularly John Locke. Natural rights philosophy argues that individuals possess inherent and non-revokable rights by virtue of their birth as human beings, rather than through a grant from a government or ruler. Because these rights inhere, they precede a person’s entry into citizenship in a particular polity, and persist throughout his or her life. Governments are formed to defend these natural rights of individuals, and may not abridge them.
Washington defines personal religious belief, or in his words “freedom of conscience,” as one of the inherent rights of each individual that cannot be infringed upon by government, by a religious majority, or by any religious institution. Washington’s words to the Hebrew Congregation in 1790 were codified in the Constitution a year later in the First Amendment, which guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.