History Behind the Free Exercise Clause

The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause represent opposite sides of the same issue. Where the Establishment Clause focuses on governmental action that would create, support, or endorse an official national religion, the Free Exercise Clause focuses on the pernicious effects that governmental action may have on an individual’s religious beliefs or practices. Like the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause was drafted in response to the Founding Fathers’ desire to protect religious minorities from persecution.

The Founding Fathers’ understanding of the Free Exercise Clause is illustrated in part by the New York Constitution of 1777, which provided that “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious … worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever … be allowed … to all mankind.” (WEAL, v. 5, p. 37) However, the same constitution cautioned that “the liberty of conscience, hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State.” The New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 similarly provided that “[e]very individual has a natural and unalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and reason; and no subject shall be hurt … in his person, liberty or estate for worshipping God” in a manner “most agreeable” to those dictates, “provided he doth not disturb the public peace.” (WEAL, v. 5, p.37).

Inside History Behind the Free Exercise Clause