History of Religious Freedom in the United States

The history of religious freedom lies at the intersection of many key themes in U.S history, therefore, it can be difficult to determine what to include or exclude. When discerning the scope of the timeline, please consider the following three criteria: relevance, impact, and inclusivity. In order to be open to new insights and developments, we are open to making changes to this rubric and timeline over time. ;xNLx;Relevance- A moment in American history is relevant for this project if it advances the Religious Freedom Center’s mission: “to educate the public about the history, meaning, and significance of religious freedom and to promote dialogue and understanding among people of all religions and none.” Specifically, this timeline presents the history of religious freedom in the United States.;xNLx;Impact- Even if the general public does not immediately associate an item on the timeline with religious freedom, certain events and people exerted such a strong impact that they transformed religious freedom. These include the Declaration of Independence, or McCarthyism, which altered the religious and social fabric of the United States. ;xNLx;Inclusivity- Traditional history and archival structures emphasize Christian and western history. Therefore, when deciding between a Christian and a non-Christian event or an eastern and western event, it is an opportunity to make history more inclusive of eastern and non-Christian milestones. This is likewise an opportunity to advance the Religious Freedom Center’s objective: “to promote dialogue and understanding among people of all religions and none,” particularly the “all religions and none.” ;xNLx;

Declaration of Independence

In July 1776, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declared: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The document seemed to claim a divinely supported universal liberty. By the time of the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence, physical persecution of religious dissenters had ended, and a mesure of toleration existed. Still, all original colonies except for Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware supported a singular state religion. Charles Carroll, Maryland was the only Catholic signer, and he was the longest-living signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Rick Santorum

On February 26, 2012, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, criticized President Kennedy’s 1960 speech about religion-state separation. Santorum claimed that he “almost threw up” because “the first line of the speech said, ‘I believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute.’ I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and the vision of our country.” Santorum continued to assert explicitly that absolute separation meant that “people of faith” would have no role in public life. Since President Kennedy was a practicing Catholic, he likely was not suggesting that.

President Obama's Inauguration

On January 20, 2009, President Obama declared in his First Inaugural Address: “We are a nation of Christians and Musims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” This was the first mention of Hindus in a presidential inaugural address, and leaders of many religious minorities attended the customary prayer service at the National Cathedral on the following day.

Diwali Lamp

In 2009, President Obama lit the first Diwali Lamp in the White House to celebrate the Hindu festival of lights. The White House’s Diwali celebration also included a Hindi acapella performance and a local Hindu priest’s Sanskrit invocation.


On September 11, 2001, members of al-Qa’ida murdered approximately 3000 people in coordinated attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. The attacks caused a 1700% increase in hate crimes in New York City against people who appeared to be Arabs.

Acquisition of Jefferson's Books

Following the British burning of Washington, DC in 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his extensive personal library to the United States for Congress and the American people to use. Congress did not buy the books until 1815, because the offer triggered congressional debates and national interest in the religiously pluralistic, or "godless," nature of Jefferson's book collection. U.S. Congressmen believed that Jefferson's books were too philosophical and did not want the American government to purchase them. These books included the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita. Congress ultimately purchased Jefferson's books for the Library of Congress, and this national library came to reflect and serve the American public.

Toleration Act of 1819

In 1819, New Hampshire passed an act that public officials and teachers must be Protestant. New Hampshire would not overturn this until the 1877 law that "no person is disqualified to hold office by reason of religious opinion."

California Gold Rush

In response to the California Gold Rush, an influx of Buddhist Asian immigrants moved to the United States. Today the United States is home to Chinese Buddhists, Textual Buddhists, Japanese Buddhists, Korean Buddhists, Sri Lankan Buddhists, Vietnamese Buddhists, and Thai Buddhists, among others.

Horace Mann

In 1848, educator Horace Mann advocated for schools to teach religious education. Mann led the "common school" movement as the founding Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education. From 1848 through 1853, he promoted his vision of public education while serving as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts.

Permoli v. New Orleans

In 1845, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Permoli v. New Orleans that the establishment clause applied to Congress, but not the states. The Court's decision stated that the "Constitution makes no protection for citizens regarding religious liberties in state matters."

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