Maryland and Religious Toleration
On this date in 1649, the Maryland General Assembly passed one of the first religious toleration laws in the American colonies. The “Maryland Toleration Act” was critical not only to the history of our state but to the development of religious liberty that culminated centuries later in the adoption of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Some background is important. Maryland was founded by a Catholic Lord Proprietor, Lord Baltimore Cecil Calvert, and most, but not all, of its original residents were Catholic. Maryland, though, was associated with a very Protestant England who persecuted Catholicism to varying degrees throughout the colonial period. It was important, therefore, that Maryland have Protestant citizens and that Catholic and Protestant Marylanders find a way to co-exist and avoid the calamitous religious strife that had been ongoing in England for centuries.
So here is what these early citizen legislators came up with, in part:
“no person or persons whatsoever within this province . . . professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion, nor in the free exercise thereof….”
Now, of course, we must note that the religious toleration in this period extended only to Christians but it was still extraordinary. This free exercise also prevented there from being an establishment of any religion, as there was in other colonies surrounding Maryland, by the state.
Ultimately, with the English Civil War and the Protestant takeover of Maryland, the Act was repealed. The principles it embodied, however, were not forgotten as Marylanders banded together to separate themselves from England.
The critical importance of this early religious freedom statute is noted by the fact that not until the adoption of the First Amendement was the concept of free exercise of religion adopted in American law. The First Amendement itself echoes the Maryland Toleration Act by adopting the phrase “the free exercise thereof…”
As Marylanders, we should be proud of our history of religious tolerance and out commitment to acknowledge and defend the right of our neighbors to act according to their conscience. It is a pity that too many in our state, even some who inhabit that same legislature who passed the Maryland Toleration Act 366 yeas ago, have lost sight of this and see religious freedom as an impediment to their political agenda.