Many today mistakenly interpret these religion clauses to mean something like, “Americans are tolerant of private religious conduct.” But mere “toleration” of “private” religious conduct was precisely what James Madison, a primary author of the Bill of Rights, was careful to avoid. He favored the protection of robust freedom.
Madison’s commitment to religious freedom in public may have begun when he reviewed the proposed Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. That document suggested “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.”
Yet years earlier, he had personally witnessed the supposedly tolerant Colony of Virginia imprison Baptist ministers because their beliefs were out of step with the predominantly Anglican colony. Such religious “tolerance” sent minority ministers to jail.
More fundamentally, Madison recoiled at the notion that exercise of religion was a gift from government to be merely “tolerated.” He saw it rather as a hallmark of a free society—an unalienable right endowed by a creator—that exists independent of government.
Many years after witnessing religious persecution in Virginia, Madison chaired the House conference committee on the Bill of Rights. In that role, he seized the opportunity to reject the language of toleration, instead grounding his proposal for the First Amendment in the language of individual liberty: “the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship … nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.” Read more»
Michael Berry, “What the Founders Understood About Religious Freedom That We Must Recover.”