Approaches to religious liberty have developed over time

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"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 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.

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. He said that political conflicts over religion were a part of living memory for many of them, and wars fought over beliefs were chronologically closer than the Civil War is to contemporary Americans. They wanted to be sure, he said, "that none of that should ever be repeated here."

He said Baptists and Presbyterians were "the political muscle" behind the First Amendment: "Catholics mostly weren't here yet."

The first major conflict over the First Amendment came, according to Professor Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University, with the influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants beginning in the 1830s, resulting in riots, McConnell said, over public schools' use of the King James Version of the Bible. In the 1870s conflict centered on government funding of schools Catholics were establishing as alternatives to the public schools dominated by Protestant teaching that used the King James Version.

Laycock listed three clusters of issues regarding religious freedom in the United States resulting in a "very, very mixed body of law."

The first cluster centers on religious practice and covers a variety of issues, some of which, he said, legislators and prosecutors "have more sense than to meddle with." These would include such matters as the Catholic Church having a male celibate clergy and allowing children to receive Communion from the chalice. The second cluster involves government funding, such as the provision of funds for social and human services or school vouchers. The third cluster of issues revolves around religious speech, both private and government-sponsored, including school prayer, Christmas displays and displays of the Ten Commandments and various monuments on public grounds.

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, and 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 a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area and former editor of The Long Island Catholic and of CHURCH magazine

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