The Essential Rights and Liberties of Religion in the American Constitutional Experiment

76 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2011 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017

Date Written: 1996


This is an early Article outlining the main themes of the author’s later text, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment (Westview Press, 2011; 3d ed. with Joel A. Nichols). Part I distills from the diverse theological and political traditions and experiences of the eighteenth century the most widely embraced first principles of the American constitutional experiment - liberty of conscience, free exercise of religion, confessional and structural pluralism, equality of religions before the law, separation of the institutions of church and state, and disestablishment of religion. Part II analyzes the American constitutional experience in light of these first principles, lifting these principles out of the familiar free exercise and establishment clause cases of the past half century. Part III considers the principles and practices of the American experiment against prevailing international norms of religious rights and liberties, finding much of the American experiment confirmed, but also finding portions of it in need of refinement.

Keywords: Religious Freedom; First Amendment; Liberty of Conscience; Separation of Church and State; Free Exercise of Religion; Religious Pluralism and Equality; No Establishment of Religion; International Human Rights Norms; Francis Bacon; Thomas Jefferson; James Madison; John Adams; US Supreme Court

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, The Essential Rights and Liberties of Religion in the American Constitutional Experiment (1996). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 71, 1996, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
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