George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

Under My Fig Tree

By Halle Duggan

Teacher: Mr. Heino

Class: Honors US History

Date: 26 March 2014

In 1790, George Washington made a promise, a promise that would define a righteous path for our budding nation. He wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island ensuring a country in which “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This ensures a country in which everyone is free to practice whatever religion they believe in, free of persecution. The right to religious freedom is one many Americans today take for granted, not realizing that the path to reach a nation completely free of prejudice and bigotry is long and winding. There are many intolerant and ignorant individuals standing in the way. The job of the government is to govern all people equally, regardless of religion, race, or gender. Since George Washington set the bar for the relationship between the United States government and its diverse people, the government has upheld Washington’s honorable policy of religious freedom.

Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony simply because he did not agree with the religious views in place at the time. In 1636, he and his followers settled a colony based on religious freedom. More specifically, it later became a haven for the Jewish community: the Touro Synagogue in Newport is the oldest synagogue in America. Prior to the founding of our nation, the governments of world powers strictly controlled religion. In fact, many nations are still governed that way. When George Washington visited the synagogue in Newport, the American government was still in its infancy, and the Jewish community (as well as other religious minorities of the time) was unsure of how they would be treated under this new system. Washington assured them that the United States government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and that it “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens” (Washington letter). This policy was ahead of its time, and upon its enforcement, was conducive to a nation where all can practice their religion freely.

In any group of people, there will be individuals who are counterproductive to the collective goals of the group. These individuals may be bigoted and feel as though they are superior, or they may simply be ignorant to the truths of a given issue. The job of our government is to uphold the Constitution, which details the goals of our nation. In order to work towards the benefit of the country as a whole, the government must take note of the few who do not have the best interest of their fellow citizens at heart. Prior to 1971, the Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act allowed the government to reimburse nonpublic schools (which were mostly Catholic) for the salaries of secular teachers, as well as supplies needed for secular courses ( In the Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), it was ruled that this act violated the first amendment, the amendment dealing with religious freedom. This case is an example of the US government recognizing that one religious group was being favored, and putting a stop to it. Clear and concise proof that bigotry will not be sanctioned within our great nation.

Today, freedom of religion is still a topic of heated debate. In the controversial 2011 Snyder v. Phelps case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church in Maryland could not constitutionally be prevented from picketing the funerals of homosexual soldiers. It is, however, important to bear in mind that what the Westboro Baptist Church continues to do is by no means right. It is clear that in order to sanction the total freedom of citizens in our nation that the government, currently bound by its strong policy of religious tolerance, must become free to act on this issue soon, before things escalate further.

Another current issue of religious tolerance is concerning the Muslim presence in America. There are many ignorant Americans who fear those practicing the Islam religion. Since the 9/11 tragedy, many individuals have been prejudiced against Muslim-Americans under the completely false assumption that all Muslims are terrorists. In 2010, it was proposed that an Islam community center be built a few blocks away from Ground Zero—the site of the infamous terror attack. The proposal caused severe controversy. Some people, including first responders to the 2001 catastrophe, felt it would be disrespectful to build a “mosque” so close to the site of the attack (though technically the center is not a mosque, it would include a prayer room). However, the vast majority of Muslims are not extremists, and in fact feel very positively towards our nation because it provides an environment of free worship. That environment was threatened by fear and ignorance, but in 2011, Park 51 (as the center is officially called) cleared the legal hurdles to build. Even in light of a crippling tragedy, the US government continues “to give persecution no assistance” as George Washington vowed all those years ago.

America was built on a policy freedom and equality for all. It was George Washington who laid the foundation for our history of religious tolerance. Washington believed that what religion you practice is up to you, all that matters is that you treat others with that same respect. His letter gave hope to religious minorities living in America. Through the years that followed that historic letter, the United States has continued to give that hope to all of its citizens, regardless of their beliefs. America continues to do that today, and hopefully will remain to do so until there is complete freedom and equality everywhere.

Works Cited

“Lemon v. Kurtzman.” LII / Legal Information Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

“Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan (Park51).” Park51. N.p., 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

“Westboro Baptist Church Wins Supreme Court Case for Right to Protest Military Funerals.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 03 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.

Eltahawy, Mona. “The Challenge of Being a Muslim in Post-9/11 America.” Guardian News and Media, 09 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

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