WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just a week after the Pope’s visit to the Capitol during which he emphasized the importance of religious liberty and human dignity, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the senior Republican in the United States Senate, took to the Senate Floor to deliver the second in a series of speeches on the importance of religious liberty.
Hatch has taken up this effort in order to highlight the challenges Americans face in being able to live their faiths. In an op-ed at IJReview, Sen. Hatch urged President Obama to rise to the Pope’s challenge to defend religious liberty within the United States.
Hatch’s speech Thursday outlined the history of religious liberty in the United States. He said, “As my remarks will show, concern for religious liberty has been a critical feature of our nation from the beginning. The desire to enjoy the freedom to live one’s faith was a motivating factor for many of our earliest settlers.”
Freedom of religion is part of the very fabric of our nation. It is not only enshrined in the text of our First Amendment, but also permeates our history — our very identity as a nation. Protecting and promoting freedom of religion is at the heart of the American project.
Senator Hatch also highlighted his own ancestors, the early Mormon pioneers, who fled persecution and migrated across the country to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah.
“One of the attributes of the Mormon Pioneers that I admire most is that — after having endured mob violence, the martyr of their prophet, the burning of their homes and places of worship, and their forced flight into the American wilderness — they never lost their deep love of the United States and our Constitution,” he said. “I am proud, Mr. President, that the people of Utah remain a deeply patriotic people with a profound respect and admiration for our Constitution.”
The full speech, as prepared for delivery, is below:
Mr. President, last week I came to the floor to speak on the subject of religious liberty in America. I explained why religious liberty matters, why it’s important, and why it deserves special protection from government interference.
I also used my remarks to welcome Pope Francis to Washington and to recognize the historic nature of his visit. I was struck by the Pope’s emphasis on religious liberty while he was here and by his concern for the state of religious liberty, not just around the world, but in the United States as well.
In his address at the White House, Pope Francis said that many American Catholics are “concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect … the right to religious liberty,” and he called on all Americans to “be vigilant … to preserve and defend [religious] freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” Before Congress, Pope Francis spoke of the delicate balance required to combat violence and extremism while at the same time safeguarding religious liberty. And in Philadelphia, he declared that the right of religious exercise extends well beyond the church door: “Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”
Mr. President, like Pope Francis, I too am concerned about threats to religious freedom here in the United States. Last week I announced my intention to give a series of speeches on the subject of religious liberty, and I continue with that purpose today by speaking about the history of religious liberty in America.
As my remarks will show, concern for religious liberty has been a critical feature of our nation from the beginning. The desire to enjoy the freedom to live one’s faith was a motivating factor for many of our earliest settlers. Once here, they set about creating societies in which religion could have full room to flourish. At times, they fell prey to the same sectarian narrow-mindedness that bedeviled the nations of Europe. But on the whole, our forebears enjoyed — and permitted — a broader range of religious freedom than could be found most anywhere on the planet. As the heirs of their efforts, we have an obligation to continue their commitment to religious liberty. Freedom of religion is part of the very fabric of our nation. It is not only enshrined in the text of our First Amendment, but also permeates our history — our very identity as a nation. Protecting and promoting freedom of religion is at the heart of the American project.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The first permanent European settlers here in America were Pilgrims seeking to escape religious oppression. Leaders like John Winthrop guided puritans and other groups of Pilgrims from Europe to the New World in search of a place where they could practice their religious beliefs according to their own conscience.
The Pilgrims’ journey to Massachusetts Bay is considered such an important part of the American story that a mural depicting the “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. This great painting stands as a symbol and constant reminder of America’s place as a safe harbor for those seeking religious liberty.
Following the success of the Puritans, other religious minorities, including Quakers, Congregationalists, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a host of German and Dutch sects, came to the American colonies to practice their faith in peace. Unfortunately, many of these minorities did not find the religious tolerance they had hoped for. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, punished heretics and adopted the Old World view that nonadherence to the state religion was a crime against the state.
True to the American ideal, however, these religious minorities did not give in. Instead, they pressed on, in search of new locales where the promise of religious freedom could find full bloom.
Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in America, was among the most notable dissenters from religious orthodoxy. Williams believed that the church in Massachusetts was not sufficiently separated from the Church of England and openly questioned the legitimacy of the colony’s charter. Forced to flee his home in Boston for fear of being arrested, Williams found refuge among the Natives. He went on to purchase land from the Massasoit [Mass-a-soyt] Tribe and established a new settlement that he gave the rather auspicious name Providence.
A few years later, Providence and several other communities joined together to form the Rhode Island Colony, the first colony in the New World to offer religious liberty to all sects. Citizens in Rhode Island could attend the church of their choice, without fear of government reprisal.
Mr. President, we see in the founding of Rhode Island the seed of the idea that all people should be free to practice their faith. If Massachusetts represented the flight from persecution, then Rhode Island constituted the next step in the path toward religious freedom — the extension of free exercise.
Nor was Rhode Island the only safe harbor in the New World for religious minorities. There was also Pennsylvania, which was named for William Penn, a Quaker. English authorities imprisoned Penn in the Tower of London for writing pamphlets critical of the Church of England. After he was released, Penn established the Pennsylvania Colony as a refuge for practitioners of his Quaker faith.
Another example was the Dutch colony of New Netherland, later known as New Amsterdam and today known as New York. When New Amsterdam was founded in 1625, its Articles of Transfer assured New Netherlanders that they could “keep and enjoy the liberty of their consciences in religion.” No city better symbolizes the religious diversity of America than New York City, which should be unsurprising given that New York was one of America’s earliest havens of religious liberty and tolerance.
It bears mention, Mr. President, that although many of the early American colonies aspired to provide religious liberty to all citizens, Colonial America often fell short of this ideal. In 1689, for example, England’s Parliament enacted the Act of Toleration, which granted freedom to non-Anglicans to hold their own religious services, provided they properly registered their ministers and places of worship. However, the Act did not extend the right to hold public office to nonconformists, and explicitly excluded Catholics and Unitarians from all benefits provided by the Act. Moreover, ministers of minority sects could be imprisoned for failing to apply for licenses or for preaching outside of authorized locations. In 1774, Virginia authorities imprisoned some fifty Baptist ministers for failing to heed the Toleration Act’s requirements.
That the trajectory of religious liberty in America has not always been a straight line, however, does not diminish the centrality of religious freedom to the American ideal or to the history and growth of our nation. Looking back centuries later, we rightly criticize colonial leaders for failing to give full freedom to religious practitioners. But the initial failure of some colonial leaders to live up to the ideal was ultimately overwhelmed by the success of later colonists and by the significance of religious liberty to the entire American project.
As I said last week, our nation exists because of religious liberty. The freedom to practice one’s faith was central to the founding and growth of the American colonies. Furthermore, the guarantees of religious liberty found in the colonial charters, coupled with the breadth of religious diversity in pre-Revolution America, is nothing short of remarkable. As Stanford Professor Michael McConnell has noted, in the years leading up to the Revolution, America had “already experienced 150 years of a higher degree of religious diversity than had existed anywhere else in the world.”
I come now to the American Revolution and subsequent ratification of the Constitution. It was through these crucial events, Mr. President, that the ideal of religious liberty that had so long motivated the colonists became part of our fundamental charter of government
George Washington, while leader of the Continental Army, issued a command concerning religious liberty to the revolutionary troops: “[A]s far as lies in your power, you are to protect and support the free exercise of the religion of the Country, and the undisturbed enjoyment of the rights of conscience in religious matters, with your utmost influence and authority.”
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, likewise emphasized the centrality of religious freedom for our new nation. In 1786, the Virginia Legislature adopted a Statute on Religious Freedom written by Jefferson. This law said that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matter of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”
Jefferson’s words in the Statute on Religious Freedom had a profound influence on James Madison, whom we revere today as the father of the Constitution. Madison reflected Jefferson’s vision in his own writings, declaring that “[t]he Religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
The original Constitution, ratified in 1788, did not contain a Bill of Rights because the Framers believed that the structure they had created would effectively guard against tyranny. They also worried that enumerating rights could lead to mischief, as officials might argue that any right not enumerated did not exist.
But the Framers eventually reversed course, and a few years later Madison drafted, and the states ratified, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The first of these amendments formalized the guarantee of religious liberty already found in many state constitutions and deeply embedded in the fabric of American society. The words are familiar to all Americans: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … .” The principle that had motivated the initial settlement of America, and that had grown and matured in concert with the growth and maturation of the colonies themselves, had found expression in our fundamental charter.
Of course, ratification of the First Amendment is not the end of the story. From the Founding generation down to the present day, the importance of religious liberty to the American ideal has continued to manifest itself in a variety of ways.
Consider the experience of the Ursuline [Ur-sa-line] Nuns of New Orleans. These French Sisters were the first congregation of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States. They came to America in the early 1700s and settled in New France, which later became Louisiana. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Sisters of the Ursuline Convent grew concerned that they would lose their rights to their property and mission now that their charter was under the jurisdiction of the United States.
The Mother Superior of the Ursulines petitioned President Thomas Jefferson to ask that the Sisters be allowed to keep their property in New Orleans. President Jefferson responded powerfully, telling the sisters: “The principles of the Constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that [your property] will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own rules, without interference from the civil authority.”
President Jefferson spoke the truth. Indeed, the Old Ursuline Convent and Mission survives to this day. It is located in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter and is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. The Old Ursuline Convent is an emblem of the vitality and centrality of religious liberty in American life. A persecuted religious minority, unpopular in its day and even reviled in some backward segments of society, received a personal guarantee from the President of the United States that their rights and property would remain secure under the protection of the United States government.
Here we see religious liberty not only as ideal, but as reality. To return to my earlier formulation, Massachusetts represented the flight from religious persecution, Rhode Island and other colonies the extension of free exercise. Now in the Constitution we have the guarantee of religious liberty to all people in all places within the jurisdiction of our great land. The Constitution and its guarantee of free exercise is the culmination of the process that began when the Pilgrims first set foot on the Mayflower way back in 1620.
But the Constitution is only as effective as we, through our fidelity, make it. Regrettably, the guarantee of free exercise has at times been undermined or even abridged by narrow-minded sectarianism or fear of new creeds. Such divergence from the promise of religious liberty is not cause to question the continuing value of religion, or to claim that the promise of religious freedom is a false promise. Rather, it is reason to rededicate ourselves to the ideal enshrined in our Constitution that all men and women have an inalienable right to choose for themselves what they believe and how they will practice their beliefs.
As many of my colleagues know, I am a descendant of the early Mormon Pioneers who, much like the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, fled persecution and discrimination by abandoning their homes for a new place of refuge. In the case of the Mormon Pioneers, they migrated, many by foot and in harsh conditions, in a mass exodus across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and finally into the Salt Lake Valley and other settlements throughout the intermountain west.
One of the attributes of the Mormon Pioneers that I admire most is that — after having endured mob violence, the martyr of their prophet, the burning of their homes and places of worship, and their forced flight into the American wilderness — they never lost their deep love of the United States and our Constitution. I am proud, Mr. President, that the people of Utah remain a deeply patriotic people with a profound respect and admiration for our Constitution.
In more recent years, our leaders have continued to reaffirm the importance of religious liberty in American life. In 1948, the United States was one of the original signers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that every person has the right to freedom of religion, including the right to “manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance.”
Four decades later, in 1990, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, a crucially important piece of legislation that prohibits government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless doing so is necessary to further a “compelling government interest.” I was honored to be one of the principal authors of RFRA, and count its passage as one of the greatest moments of my time in this body. The bill passed the Senate 97 to 3, and passed the House without recorded opposition. An enormous coalition of groups from across the ideological spectrum — including the ACLU, the American Muslim Council, the Anti-Defamation League, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Council of Churches — came together in support of the bill. The breadth and depth of support for RFRA was a sign of the enduring importance of religious liberty in American life. Indeed, RFRA demonstrated that religious liberty is the rare issue that unites Americans of all stripes.
One other recent marker of the continuing significance of religious freedom in America is found, interestingly enough, in a bill aimed at protecting religious freedom in other countries. In 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which created an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the State Department and a bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The very first words of the Act proclaim that “[t]he right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States.”
This statement, approved by all 535 members of Congress and signed into law by the President, encapsulates the overarching theme of my remarks today. Freedom of religion is central to the American ideal and to the history and development of our nation. From the earliest settlers, to the Revolutionary generation, to the nineteenth century, to the modern day, religious freedom has been a driving force in American life. Without the quest for religious liberty, there would be no United States. And without the continued guarantee of religious freedom, there can be no American ideal.
With that Mr. President, I yield the floor.
Submitted by the office of Orrin Hatch
- Sen. Hatch welcomes Pope Francis; pope concludes first full day in US Capital
- Governor signs LGBT anti-discrimination, religious freedoms amendments into law
- Hatch cheers victory for religious freedom, Holt v. Hobbs Supreme Court decision
Email: [email protected]