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Religious Freedom in America

Religious freedom proved to be an inevitable necessity to the Puritan origins of seventeenth-century America in a contemporary situation where approximately three thousand religions are practiced. The multifariousness of contemporary society necessitates the tolerance of religious differences and the respect for all religions and individuals.

The American experiment in religious freedom comprises the principle of the freedom of conscience for individuals of all faiths; religious freedom is considered as a fundamental and a natural or ‘inalienable’ right; and it also asserts the right to practice all religions without any interference from the state. Religious freedom is considered as the ‘first liberty’ in America since religion is deemed as forming a substantial part of an individual’s intrinsic beliefs that conditions his or her worldview.[1] Article VI of the Constitution adopted in 1789 asserts that ‘No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States’. The First Amendment to the Constitution states that ‘Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’.

 America’s conviction on the necessity to advance religious freedom endorses the democratic pluralism that has come to characterise American culture. This pluralism can be witnessed throughout American society. A most obvious example is the several different religions which are found among the students of public schools. Consequently, to adhere to the notion of religious freedom school prayer, bible reading, and religious instruction, to mention a few examples, are deemed unconstitutional in public schools in the pursuit to respect and tolerate all individuals of all faiths and no faiths.

Despite all the problems and controversies that may arise America firmly believes that religious freedom is essential to develop a common vision for the common good. In 1988, the Williamsburg Charter reaffirms the necessity for religious tolerance: ‘We affirm that a right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for an Eastern Orthodox is a right for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist – and for the followers of any other faith within the wide bounds of the republic’.[2]

The equal rights stressed for all individuals in America’s embracement of diversity contrasts greatly with France’s proposed ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools. France as a host country holds the view of cultural assimilation although it does not hinder the right to exercise different religions. However, for the Americans’ conception of religious freedom the ban on wearing religious attire is the infringement of ‘a basic right that should be protected’, according to the Bush administration.[3]

References

Haynes, Charles, ‘History of Religious Liberty in America’, First Amendment Centre [accessed 21 May 2006]

Knowlton, Brain, ‘U.S. takes opposite tack from France in head scarf debate’, International Herald Tribune [accessed 21 May 2006]

Pfaff, William, ‘Why France still insists on cultural assimilation’, International Herald Tribune, [accessed 21 May 2006]

 ‘Religious Freedom in the United States of America’, International Coalition for Religious Freedom, [accessed 21 May 2006]

 [1] Charles Haynes, ‘History of Religious Liberty in America’, First Amendment Centre [accessed 21 May 2006] [2] Haynes, ‘History of Religious Liberty in America’.

[3] Brain Knowlton, ‘U.S. takes opposite tack from France in head scarf debate’, International Herald Tribune [accessed 21 May 2006]