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What is Religious Freedom Actually?

What is Religious Freedom Actually?

American Perspective vs. Catholic Teaching


If you ask the average American on the street what religious freedom is, you will get all sorts of different ideas. Some places, you will hear: “keep your religion to yourself. Haven’t you heard of the separation of Church and State?” Others might answer: “People are free to believe whatever they want. Who am I to judge if they’re right or not?” Still others might claim that religious freedom means the ability to pray privately however you want.

None of these are what religious freedom actually is specifically. But it should also be noted that the American constitutional notion of religious freedom is not precisely what the Catholic Church holds religious freedom to be. And, so, the object of today’s exploration is to look at what religious freedom is in the United States of America. Then, more importantly, to view what religious freedom is, in principle, as defined by the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. 

Separation of Church and State

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, the first of the ten amendments which comprise the Bill of Rights, adopted on December 15, 1791, reads thusly:

“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.”

For our purposes we will focus on the first phrase: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This is known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

I do not have the time or space here to provide an exhaustive account of American jurisprudence on the matter of religious liberty. But, I do want to draw out a few key moments in American History where this question came up and which will give us a clearer view of what religious freedom is.

Thomas Jefferson’s Danbury Letter

In a letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson wrote:


The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem (Danbury Letter).”

He wrote this letter in response to a letter from the Danbury Baptists in order to explain his views on federalism and the meaning of the Establishment Clause. The main meaning of his “wall of separation between Church & State” is an assurance that the government would not interfere with the church of the Danbury Baptists or give special treatment to any particular religion or sect. Justice Hugo Black, an appointee of Franklin Roosevelt to the Supreme Court, would even refer later to the Danbury explanation as an “almost authoritative declaration” of the Founders’ intent for the Establishment Clause (cf. Bill of Rights Institute).

Two days after sending this letter, though, Jefferson attended a religious service in the House of Representatives location in the Capitol. As Daniel Roeber notes: “Jefferson and others recognized the benefits of developing a national identity that transcended interdenominational division (Roeber).” Yet, since 1795, public worship was administered at the partially completed Capitol Building each Sunday at noon (cf. ibid).

Religious liberty was the motivation of the Plymouth Pilgrims and many Catholics who settled in Maryland. However, the colonial period was far from united on religious matters. Protestant sects disagreed amongst themselves. Catholics were seen as untrustworthy papists of low social stature. Jewish people were tolerated, at best. The nascent country needed an identity which transcended these divisions. The importance of developing a national identity was something that would take over a hundred years more as most identified most readily with their own state. 

Lemon V. Kurtzman and the Three Pronged Test (1971)

Let us now skip forward quite a bit to 1971. In that year, a case was brought to the Supreme Court in which the Court considered whether a law in Pennsylvania violated the Establishment Clause. The law reimbursed religious schools with state funds for textbooks and salaries for teachers for non-public, non-secular schools. The Court responded 8-0 with a three-pronged test for determining whether a given statute is constitutional. 

The government may assist religion only if:

  1. The primary purpose of the assistance is secular

  2. The assistance must neither promote nor inhibit religion, and 

  3. There is no excessive entanglement between church and state

In this specific case, the Pennsylvania law was struck down because of excessive entanglement between church and state. It is worth noticing here what is implicit: there is nothing wrong, in the American understanding, with some implicit entanglement between Church and State. The issue, ultimately, is when the line is crossed towards “excessive.”

Marsh v. Chambers (1983)

The Nebraska legislature opened each of its sessions with a publicly funded chaplain offering a prayer. The Supreme Court, in Marsh v. Chambers (1983) determined that this was NOT a violation of the Establishment Clause. Though this instance does not pass the “Lemon” three-pronged test, the Justices argued that there is a long historical custom going back to the Continental Congress and the very Congress that resulted in the Bill of Rights. 

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote: 

“In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an ‘establishment’ of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country (Citation: 463 US 783).”

As we saw with the Capitol Building services, there is not a strict and non-transversable wall of separation of Church and State. 

Other Supreme Court Cases

I now want to walk through several other Supreme Court cases that touched on religious liberty. Again, this list is not exhaustive, but it can help us round out our picture.

Reynolds v. United States (1879)

In 1879, in Reynolds v. United States, the Court upheld a federal law banning polygamy. They claimed that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment forbids government from regulating belief but that government can nonetheless punish acts which it judges to be criminal, regardless of religious belief.

Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)

As of 1961, the State of Maryland had a requirement that a candidate for public office needed to declare that they believed in God in order to be eligible for the position. Unanimously, in Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court agreed that this gives preference to believers who were willing to publicly profess; therefore, Maryland was aiding theistic religions and beliefs overr atheistic ones.

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

In the 1962 case Engel v. Vitale, the Court ruled 6-1 that a New York prayer to begin the school day was unconstitutional and in violation of the Establishment Clause despite being a nondenominational prayer. 

Abington v. Schempp & Murray v. Curlett (1963)

The following year in 1963, the Court heard the case of Abington v. Schempp and the related case of Murray v. Curlett. In both cases, public schools were involving students in daily Bible readings and in the latter case of the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Both of these cases were seen as violating both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

In 1972, Amish parents sued the State of Wisconsin for requiring that their children attend school until the age of 16. The unanimous decision held that the Amish teens were exempt from the state law of requiring 14 to 16 year olds to attend school because the Amish religion required a living apart from worldly influences. In other words, though it was in the state’s interest that the children receive two years more schooling, this did not outweigh the free exercise of the religion of the Amish.

McDaniel v. Paty (1978)

A Tennessee law barring clergymen from serving in public office was challenged in 1978 in McDaniel v. Paty. The Court unanimously ruled that this law was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment (as well as the Fourteenth Amendment) because it made holding public office contingent on surrendering religious beliefs. 

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)

In 1993, the Court heard Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. There were ordinances passed by the city of Hialeah, Florida that banned animal sacrifice. These laws were not written in a neutral and generally applicable way. They specifically targeted Santeria, a Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba and some Catholic elements. Because animal sacrifice is an important part of Santeria, the Court ruled that the ordinances were designed as a form of religious persecution in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.  

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)

The Sante Fe Independent School District of Texas in 2000 had a policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games. In a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld an appellate court’s ruling that this was a violation of the Establishment Clause. The school district tried to argue that because it was student led and initiated, it was private speech, and, thus, protected under the First Amendment. However, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that it was not private speech because it was done over the P.A. system, by a student body representative, under school faculty supervision, and under school policy. Also, it did not pass the “Lemon” test because it did not have a secular purpose and was implemented with the purpose of endorsing school prayer.

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004)

California’s Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow in 2004 investigated the policy requiring each elementary school class to say the Pledge of Allegiance daily. Michael Newdow, a father of one of the students, challenged this because of the words therein contained of “under God.” Because Newdow did not have custody of the child, he did not have standing to bring the case to court. However, in concurring opinions, Justices William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Clarence Thomas, said that the words “under God” do NOT violate the Establishment Clause.

As the Bill of Rights Institute reports:

“Further, they noted, ‘the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the Nation’s leaders, and to manifest itself in many of our public observances. Examples of patriotic invocations of God and official acknowledgments of religion’s role in our Nation’s history abound.’ They concluded that ‘the recital, in a patriotic ceremony pledging allegiance to the flag and to the Nation, of the descriptive phrase ‘under God’ cannot possibly lead to the establishment of a religion, or anything like it’ (Bill of Rights Institute).”

Van Orden v. Perry (2005)

In a similar case in Van Orden V. Perry in 2005, in a 5-4 decision, the Court determined that a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments on Texas State Capitol grounds did not violate the Establishment Clause. There were 38 other monuments on the grounds and highlighted different parts of Texan history. 

Justice William Rehnquist argued that the monument had a religious message, however, it was presented in a context showing that:

“[a] secular moral message about proper standards of social conduct and a message about the historic relation between those standards and the law.” 

Therefore, the religious message is part of a broader context of cultural heritage and patrimony of the people of Texas. 

Teaching Evolution in Schools

There are two Supreme Court cases worth looking at briefly which discuss the teaching of evolution in schools. Generally, there is a perceived discrepancy of considerable magnitude between the theory of evolution and the evidence for creation from the Book of Genesis. I am not getting into that minefield right now, but these cases show how religious liberty and the government of the United States interact.

Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)

In Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, Arkansas passed a law saying that public school teachers were banned from teaching evolution because it was in contradiction with the Bible account of creation.

Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the majority opinion:

“In the present case, there can be no doubt that Arkansas has sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it is contrary to the belief of some that the Book of Genesis must be the exclusive source of doctrine as to the origin of man. No suggestion has been made that Arkansas' law may be justified by considerations of state policy other than the religious views of some of its citizens (Epperson v. Arkansas).”

He continued to argue that the law of Arkansas is clearly not a religiously neutral act. Instead it was the targeting of a particular theory on Biblical grounds, literally read. Therefore, it is a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)

Nineteen years later in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, the Court examined a Louisiana law forbidding the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools unless it was accompanied by an equal treatment of creationism. In a 7-2 decision, the Court declared that this law violated the Establishment Clause because it failed all three parts of the “Lemon” test. It lacked secular purpose, endorsed the view that a supernatural being created mankind, and it entangled the interests of Church and State by seeking “to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose (Citation: 482 US 578).”

The American View of Religious Liberty

In sum, the evolution of religious liberty in the United States has its basis on the cultural milieu of the time. In the colonial period and in the early days of the country, there were few true atheists. Deism was exceptionally popular, but even Deists acknowledge a belief in the Creator. So, a nondenominational prayer to the Creator at the state of a session of Congress was a forgone conclusion. Since that time, the United States of America has become far more cultural, religiously, and politically diverse. As a result of this undeniable diversity, it cannot be said that the United States is currently a Judeo-Christian nation, even if the case can strongly be made that it began that way. 

Private speech and religious practice is unambiguously protected. However, as we have seen, the nature of the public exercise of religion is questioned when public funds are in the mix. Each of the examples mentioned above, and where problems usually arise, is in publicly-funded schools, government property or buildings, and in relation to public office. However, the Supreme Court has upheld that religious beliefs which are not criminal are protected in the public sphere. A religious person need not check their religion at the door when engaging in public matters (and how could they, really). 

The First Amendment of the Constitution protects all Americans against the establishment of any one religion to the competition or detriment of any others. Any law which would exclude a person from public life on the basis of religion is unconstitutional. And the free exercise of religion is safeguarded and held in a careful balance with the interests of all other religions, beliefs, and ideas. 

This reality is a blessing and a curse for Catholics. On the one hand, we have freedom to boldly speak the truth without fear of legal reprisal, within due limits. Yet, on the other hand, there is a bland tolerance of false religions and ideas antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church.

The Church’s View of Religious Freedom

All of that being said, what is the Catholic view of religious freedom? Is it precisely the American view or are there significant differences? When I speak to American Catholics about this question, there is no real sense of a firm understanding of the Church on the matter. And, frankly, when people read the official Church teaching, they do not understand the nuances offered there. I am going to do my best to help shed some light on the subject! 

Dignitatis Humanae

On December 7, 1965, Pope St. Paul VI promulgated a Declaration on Religious Freedom which is one of the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council. Dignitatis Humanae (DH) is only fifteen paragraph sections long and is highly worth reading in its entirety. What I will offer here is a brief summary and the main conclusions. In the interest of keeping this to the point, I am going to be looking at three questions:

  1. What is religious freedom in the eyes of the Catholic Church?

  2. Why is religious freedom based on human dignity?

  3. How has God revealed religious liberty?

What is religious freedom in the eyes of the Catholic Church?

God has made Himself known to man, shown us how we are to serve Him, and how we are saved in Christ and come to eternal blessedness. The Church unequivocally affirms in Dignitatis Humanae that:

“We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you’ (Matt. 28: 19-20) (DH, 1).”

Many of those who are suspicious of the Second Vatican Council read this not as the full throated profession of Christ and His Church that it is. Instead, they read the word “subsist” in an uncharitable and ignorant way. We could say that the one true religion IS the Catholic and Apostolic Church, but subsists is actually a richer word. Subsists means to begin in a certain way and remain in that way. In other words, there is no true religion apart from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, as our Lord began it and has constantly sustained it to this day. The Church which, of course, is His own Mystical Body.

The Council Fathers continue:

“On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it (DH, 1).”

Elsewhere in Vatican II in the documents Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes we hear: 

“Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved… The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart’ (LG, 14).”

For those who claim that Vatican II is weak on doctrine and the truth and is overly ambiguous or some other such nonsense, it is abundantly clear that they never read the documents or they have read them in an uncharitable and ignorant way.

At any rate, all of this being said, what is religious freedom? The Council Fathers write:

“Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ (DH, 1).”

So, the moral duty of man towards the Catholic Church remains untouched by religious freedom. What is vital to understand the Church’s view is that phrase: “immunity from coercion in civil society.” That is the key. 

A more substantial definition is then given, with very official verbiage:

“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits (DH, 2).”

The Church has always held to this doctrine. We know, for example, that the Church has always condemned forced conversions as illegitimate and compelled baptisms as invalid. As St. John Paul II often said: the Faith is always proposed, not imposed.’

Why is religious freedom based on human dignity?

This right to religious freedom is rooted in human dignity. The Church even calls for this right to be enshrined in constitutional law throughout the world. 

Our human dignity points to the fact that God endowed man with reason and free will and therefore personal responsibility. We are impelled by human nature and bound by moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. Once we know the truth, we are bound to adhere to it and order our lives towards it. The Church declares that religious freedom is thus necessary because:

“... men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom (DH, 2).”

There is no love without freedom, there is no seeking of the truth without freedom. So, religious freedom does not belong to feelings and subjective disposition. No. It belongs to the very nature of the human person. 

Faith comes from what is heard. And as truth is discovered, “it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it,” to use another phrase from Dignitatis Humanae (DH, 2). Personal though this assent is, religious freedom also extends to religious communities. They should not be hindered:

“either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties (DH, 4).”

Nor should they be hindered from public teaching and witness of faith, whether spoken or written. As the preeminent religious community, all of these freedoms belong to the family as well.

How has God revealed religious liberty?

In Divine Revelation, the doctrine of religious freedom finds its roots. The Council Fathers write:

“Revelation does not indeed affirm in so many words the right of man to immunity from external coercion in matters religious. It does, however, disclose the dignity of the human person in its full dimensions (DH, 9).”

First and foremost, man’s response to God in faith must be free for it to be legitimate. No one can be forced to become Catholic. The act of faith is a free act. Forcing someone to love is not love at all. As Dignitatis Humanae states:

“It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded. In consequence, the principle of religious freedom makes no small contribution to the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith, embrace it of their own free will, and profess it effectively in their whole manner of life (DH, 10).”

God is very clear, however, in what He has revealed that we are to boldly proclaim the truth. Therefore, are we to be “tolerant” and “accepting” of other religions and simply have a bland indifference? Absolutely not! The Council Fathers write:

“The disciple is bound by a grave obligation toward Christ, his Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from Him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it, never-be it understood-having recourse to means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel. At the same time, the charity of Christ urges him to love and have prudence and patience in his dealings with those who are in error or in ignorance with regard to the faith (DH, 14).”

Freedom from Coercion

Freedom from coercion in religious matters is the crux of the Church’s view of religious liberty. Really, it pertains directly to the establishing of an environment in which a person may freely seek and adhere to the one, true religion. Though there are elements of truth outside the Catholic Church, there is no salvation. If someone outside the visible bounds of the Church is saved, it is only by the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ and the instrumentality of the Catholic Church, the sacrament of salvation.

We must not be indifferent. We must boldly preach the truth at all times. And we must not be afraid to stand up for these beliefs, even when it is inconvenient. In some contexts doing so can lead to our bodily martyrdom. In the United States of America, the constitutional order is more or less compatible with the free practice of the Catholic religion. However, we must be cognizant that there is a distinct difference between religious freedom in the American idea and the Catholic teaching.

The American notion protects us, to an extent, but it is more geared to creating a national identity that transcends religion. This should make any faithful Catholic nervous because it is working. How many American Catholics do you know who are more concerned about being American Catholics than being Catholics who happen to be American? 

Religious freedom is freedom from coercion. Ultimately, it is freedom FOR the truth, FOR the Catholic Faith. We cannot forget this, lest we descend into a banal coexistence or tolerance without the drive to share the fullness of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot be indifferent and we cannot be content to allow anyone to stay in error. We must respect their right to religious freedom by not coercing them and respecting their journey, in good conscience. But the task and privilege of evangelization remains in full force.

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