Thinking on religious liberty has developed over time
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" are the first words of the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791.
Before then, established churches — the Church of England in most colonies — were the rule throughout colonial America. While other beliefs and practices were tolerated in some of the colonies by the time of the founding of the United States, the established churches were supported by taxes, and public officials usually had to swear adherence to the established church.
But the First Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept Britain and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, had greatly increased the numbers of dissenters, especially Baptists and Presbyterians, and it was they who pushed for religious freedom to be enshrined in the Constitution and for disestablishment state by state.
Religious liberty was desirable in the minds of the founders of the republic from the beginning, according to Douglas Laycock, law professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Political conflicts over religion were a part of living memory for many of them.
The first major conflict over the First Amendment came, McConnell said, with the influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants beginning in the 1830s. It was then that there were riots, McConnell said, over public schools' use of the King James Version of the Bible.
A later conflict in the 1870s centered on government funding of schools Catholics were establishing as alternatives to the public schools that were dominated by Protestant teaching and that used the King James Version.
Other groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses faced persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries.
McConnell said fewer arguments now break along Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim lines. Rather, he said, the most conservative members of all those groups tend to come out on one side of an issue — so that some evangelical Protestant voters are supporting conservative Catholic candidates. In other instances, more moderate or slightly liberal members of religious groups are willing to work together. At the outlying extreme, he said, are liberal members of religious groups and religiously indifferent or anti-religious secularists who strongly oppose any cooperation between government and religious groups as well as any kind of religious observance or display connected with civil events.
(Liz O'Connor is former editor of The Long Island Catholic.)