RETHINKING THE HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

First Things | 8/24/2009 | Robert Louis Wilken
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In the Supreme Court case Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 1940, which upheld compulsory pledging of allegiance to the U.S. flag in schools, Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the majority, said: “Centuries of strife over the erection of particular dogmas as exclusive or all-comprehending faiths led to the inclusion of a guarantee for religious freedom in the Bill of Rights.” Nevertheless Frankfurter argued that the “promotion of national cohesion” was a sufficient reason for requiring school children to recite the pledge. Three years later, however, the court reversed itself in Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which prohibited students from being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Justice Frankfurter’s statement in the earlier case that religious freedom rose against the backdrop of religious wars became part of the historical understanding of religious freedom in U.S. jurisprudence.

In another case before the court in 1947, Everson v. Board of Education, the debate centered on the use of public funds to support busing children to parochial schools. Though the court decided to sanction the practice, again it invoked the specter of religious wars. In the opinion of Justice Black, [the] “words of the First Amendment reflected in the minds of early Americans a vivid mental picture of conditions and practices which they fervently wished to stamp out in order to preserve liberty for themselves and for their posterity.” It was, he adds, the fears and political problems caused by religious conflict that led to the Bill of Rights’ declaration that there could be no law “respecting an establishment of religion.” A direct line ran from the wars of religion to the development of liberty of conscience.

March - Op-ed - Washington - Post - Commentator

More recently, in a March op-ed in the Washington Post, historian and political commentator Robert Kagan wrote: “Only with the advent of Enlightenment liberalism did people...
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