The United States did not establish an official state religion at its birth, and that was unusual for its time. All the colonial powers with interests in the lands that would become the United States - Spain, the Netherlands, France, England, Russia - not only had state religions, but took them very seriously, at times forcibly converting, punishing, or even putting to death nonconformers. Many who sailed to the New World came to escape state religions.
From the start, there were many religions in the future United States and its future territories: the native peoples, the European groups, and the Africans who migrated or were brought here as slaves, all held a variety of beliefs. Europeans settled as early as 1508 (Puerto Rico) and wherever their settlements were established, their clergy came along. European colonizers considered it extremely important to convert the native people and African slaves to their religions. Some of these efforts were ugly affairs mirroring ugly events back in Europe. The many indigenous and African religions were adapted, carried out in secret, or extinguished along with their adherents.
The Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 were one of several groups of Europeans coming to avoid persecution, opens a new window in their home countries; others were Mennonites, Jesuits, Lutherans, Huguenots, and Jews. For them, freedom to worship was paramount. Even so, this did not stop them from promoting their preferred brand of Christianity in the colonies.
So began a tug of war that continues today. These were colonists who wished religious freedom, but for them having a government of no religion at all was unthinkable. How to have a government that upheld religious beliefs without establishing one specific denomination as a state religion?
Early debates were whether religious denominations should receive public financial support, and whether those holding office must be required to belong to a certain denomination (which might sound strange to us today, but was normal in Europe at the time).
Establishment Clause. Some early framers of the Constitution such as James Madison, opens a new window and Thomas Jefferson argued forcefully for separation of Church and state, and the Constitution finally adopted in 1787 stipulated that no "religious test" would be required in the new republic for those wishing to hold federal office. Later, the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, forbade Congress to make any law "respecting an establishment of religion." This became known as the Establishment Clause, opens a new window and this one clause has been tested over and over in court to make sure government is not endorsing a particular religion.
Free Exercise Clause. The First Amendment also states "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise thereof, opens a new window". The right to observe one's religion seems clear except that observing religion often involves actions. To what extent are all religious practices as well as beliefs protected? Animal sacrifice, use of peyote, and congregating in a time of CoVid-19 restrictions, all have tested the Free Exercise Clause.
Blue Laws. Most of the colonies instituted a requirement to worship. Some groups running afoul, opens a new window of local forced-Sunday-worship laws included Seventh Day Adventists and Jews, who worshipped, but not on Sundays. This was the origin of the so-called "blue laws" which have steadily been dismantled, such as Sunday liquor sales. Sunday sales is still controversial. Some mom-and-pops complain they can't keep up with bigger competitors by staying open seven days. Some companies, such as Georgia's Chic-Fil-A, choose to remain closed on Sundays for religious reasons. Sale of alcohol on Sunday in Georgia was forbidden until 2011; the state now leaves the decision up to localities. The Supreme Court has upheld state and local rights to enact blue laws, asserting that they are not forbidden by the Establishment Clause.
Religious persecution in some parts of the early United States continued even after the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. At the time the First Amendment was adopted, many States maintained government-sponsored churches. Others used various means to advance the Christian religion, such as requiring officeholders to be Christians, or denying Jews and Catholics the right to vote.
Rhode Island was the best example of the American ideal of religious freedom ever since its founding by Roger Williams. You can get a flavor of his time in this July 6, 2011, tribute read by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, opens a new window and some source materials, opens a new window provided on the website of the Rhode Island Secretary of State.
Even with the Establishment Clause, there has never been any lack of religion in the halls of government. Then, as now, sessions of Congress opened with prayer and each legislative house has had an official chaplain on the public payroll since 1789. The current chaplain of the Senate, Dr. Barry C. Black, opens a new window, has served since 2003. Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben, opens a new window has served the House of Representatives since 2021. Both are military veterans. The chaplains' opening prayers, reproduced in the daily Congressional Record, are sometimes an enlightening reflection of the mood of Congress (search "prayer" in the bound Congressional Record, opens a new window for a date or time period).
Some of the interesting issues tested by the Establishment Clause have been mandatory vaccinations, tax exemption for churches, the Census, and the Pledge of Allegiance. You can find many federal court decisions in the USCOURTS, opens a new window database and in the Supreme Court's United States Reports, opens a new window.
Vaccinations. The issue of community disease prevention versus personal liberty is often in the news. Many public school systems and daycares require vaccination of children; some states, including Georgia, allow parents to opt out (except during an epidemic). States do distinguish between religious beliefs and philosophical or other beliefs. Some court decisions have cited decisions on deciding a draftee's conscientious objector status.
If you are interested in this topic from a health communication point of view you can search terms like anti-vaccination movement or vaccine hesitancy in PubMed Central, opens a new window.
Tax Exemption. Debate about whether religious denominations should receive public financial support, opens a new window goes back to colonial times. Arguments in favor emphasized the benefit of churches to society as keepers of morality. Those against cautioned that pursuit of government support would lead to corruption of those churches.
Churches are automatically exempt from federal, state and local taxes, as their work is considered a charity. This is a concept that goes back to the 17th century concept of society succumbing to lawlessness and immorality without the stabilizing effect of churches. Today, many religious organizations provide significant social assistance programs besides getting people in the door on holy days. For IRS purposes, opens a new window, they must refrain from political action and money may not be used for private interests.
Census. Another issue has been whether the decennial (every ten years) census should count citizens' religion, opens a new window. The census did ask about religion starting in the 1850s, but it did not ask individuals to provide this information, instead obtaining it from heads of religious establishments. In 1906 the Census Bureau published its first separate Census of Religious Bodies in 1906 and published three more (these volumes are housed at Central Library). Section 221 of Title 13 of the U.S. Code now states "Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no person shall be compelled to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body." Nongovernmental groups do collect this data; one prominent example is the Pew Religious Landscape Study, opens a new window.
However, the Census Bureau does collect economic data on places of worship as part of the annual series County Business Patterns, opens a new window, and houses of worship are searchable by their NAICS code, opens a new window. For example, Fulton County reports 474 religious organizations employing nearly 7,000 people.
The Pledge of Allegiance. The early colonists imagined a government tolerant of many religions, but could not have imagined a government without any religion. Yet the Establishment Clause has been used to challenge such phrases as "In God We Trust" on coins and the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, opens a new window. Very few people, if any, refuse to be paid in money that has the word "God" on it, but several people have challenged the mandate to repeat the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. The Pledge of Allegiance was first published in a magazine called The Youth Companion on September 8, 1892, as part of the magazine's campaign to put American flags in every school in the country. It was written by a Christian socialist minister named Francis Julius Bellamy. In its original form, opens a new window, it read:
"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In 1954, following an inspiring sermon by Rev. George Docherty at a service with President Dwight Eisenhower in attendance, Congress enacted a law adding the words "under God" (Eisenhower also had E Pluribus Unum as the official United States motto supplanted by In God We Trust). Today, most states require the recitation of the Pledge in schools, while some allow students other options where necessary.