On this day 234 years ago, The United States Constitution was signed and sent to the states for ratification, not only proposing a new system of government if needed, but also taking one of the first concrete steps to protect religious freedom.
In 1787, delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia to create a viable federal government. Over the course of four months, all kinds of issues – big and small – were debated, including religious tests for public service.
In the 18th century, these tests were extremely common in the American colonies and throughout Europe. Most of the original 13 states had some form of religious test for citizenship or public office. These tests could involve affirming a belief in Christianity in general (Maryland) or in a specific doctrine like the Trinity (Delaware) or by specifically limiting elective terms to Protestants (Georgia). In fact, eight states today always have a religious test in their state constitutions, although they were no longer applicable after the U.S. Supreme Court case in 1961 Torcaso v. Watkins.
Despite the fact that most of the delegates at the convention represented a state with a religious test for public service, they quickly decided not to need such tests. They clearly expressed this decision in Article VI with the words “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for an office or a public trust under the United States.”
This provision, however, has become a lightning rod in many state ratification conventions and has sparked much debate about the role of religious testing in a republic.
Some opponents believed that a religious test was necessary to eliminate the “unworthy” or “immoral”. Others were dismayed that this lack of a religious test could mean that one day non-Protestants and even non-Christians would take federal office. Major General John Sullivan summed up the objections in New Hampshire, writing “even if (the religious test) were dropped in all other cases, the president should at least be compelled to submit to it; – because otherwise, says one, ‘A Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and worst of all, a Universalist, can be president of the United States.’ “
North Carolina Delegate William Lancaster argues that this government is being formed “for millions that do not yet exist” and that nothing prevents future generations from electing Catholics or Muslims. He added: “There is a disqualification, I believe, in every state in the Union – it should be so in this system.”
The most ardent supporters of Article VI have defended it, stressing that a religious test for federal office undermines religious freedom for all and that religious freedom should be one of the cornerstones of the new democracy. North Carolina delegate James Iredell praised the ban on religious testing, saying: America. … How is it possible to exclude any group of men, without taking away this principle of religious freedom that we ourselves defend so warmly?
Granting that to oppose the “no religious test” provision was the popular position in Massachusetts, Delegate and Pastor Daniel Shute said, “Far from limiting my charity and trust to men of my own religious denomination, I suppose and believe, sir, that there are characters. worthy among the men of every other denomination – among the Quakers – the Baptists – the Church of England – the Papists – and even among those who have no other guide, on the path of virtue and of heaven, but the precepts of natural religion.
Today, the inclusion of Article VI seems obvious: of course, it is not necessary to pass a religious test to run for public office. Yet the fierce debate of centuries ago shows that it was not a given. Our founders made the intentional choice to break with tradition and laid the foundation for the nation of freedom of faith they envisioned.
Jennifer Hawks is Assistant General Counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), where she provides legal analysis on Church-State issues before Congress, courts and administrative agencies. She is a member of the bars of the Supreme Court of the United States, Texas and Mississippi.
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