Bench Memos

Where Do Our Religious Freedom Principles Come From?

Everywhere we turn these days, we are confronted with issues of religious liberty.  Can employers be compelled to include contraceptives and abortifacients in their employee health plans, if their faith teaches it’s wrong?  Can a photographer be fined for refusing, because of her faith, to photograph a same-sex union ceremony?  Can a town council continue its traditional practice of having local clergy give an invocation before each council meeting?  Is it unlawful for the government to tolerate the presence of a volunteer-maintained memorial cross honoring veterans on public land?  Can the government dictate the “ministerial” hiring practices of churches and religious schools?  Can a bureaucrat at a federal veterans’ cemetery tell local volunteers not to offer to pray with the bereaved who come for their loved ones’ funerals?  Can the military, in the name of “tolerance,” muzzle its chaplains’ preaching of their faith?  Can a state legislature take steps to protect the age-old definition of marriage, or even just the freedom of its citizens to act on a religious belief in that definition, without a judge somewhere striking down the legislation for violating the “separation of church and state”?

America has perhaps the strongest legal principles in the world protecting religious freedom—which is not to say that those principles are always happily realized, nor that they sprang into being at some magical moment of perfection.  But the foundations of our religious-freedom law were put in place after years of struggle in colonial and revolutionary America over the relationship between church and state, religion and politics.  Understanding these foundations is indispensable to a full understanding of where we are today.

To that end, this summer the Witherspoon Institute, where I direct the Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution, will hold a Church and State Seminar: Religion and Liberty in the American Founding Era.  As in past years, we will bring together young scholars—untenured professors, postdoctoral scholars, and dissertation-writing doctoral students—to discuss primary sources from the founding era on the origins of the American understanding of church-state relations and religious freedom.  If you are one of these scholars, in history, political science, law, theology, or religious studies, or any related field, you can apply to attend the seminar by April 15 and we will give you a fast decision on your application.  A modest registration fee if you are accepted, and responsibility for your own travel to Princeton, will be your only significant expenses; we provide food and lodging for the week of July 27 to August 2.  The application is easy—a brief form, a cover letter, and a CV.

The seminar’s main text is the copious anthology The Sacred Rights of Conscience, published by Liberty Fund.  Other readings will be supplied electronically.  The seminar’s faculty are leading scholars of American religious freedom: Daniel Dreisbach, constitutional scholar at American University and co-editor of the main text; Thomas S. Kidd, historian of American religion at Baylor University; and Gerald R. McDermott, theologian and scholar of religious history at Roanoke College.  With discussion leaders like these, we look forward to a richly rewarding seminar.  If this is up your street, please apply!

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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