Thursday, September 12, 2019

A History of Religious Freedom in North America

On September 12, 1695, the small Jewish community of what would become New York City, petitioned Governor Thomas Dongan for the right to exercise their religion in public. Because of the passage of the “Charter of Liberties and Privilege,” they had reason to hope that they too would receive permission from the governor, or the British Crown.

In its first session in 1683, the New York General Assembly addressed the issue of elections and individual rights for the colonists. James, the Duke of York, functioned as the colonial proprietor of New York, and his instructions to Dongan were sealed on January 27, 1683. James, who became King James II in February 1685, was the son of Charles I, who reigned from March, 1625, for close to 24 years, prior to Oliver Cromwell. James instructed Dongan to hold elections for the New York Colonial Assembly and to provide rights--including religious liberties. On October 31, 1683, Dongan and his council approved the “Charter of Liberties and Privileges.” A year later, James signed the charter in England, but his ascension to the throne prevented the document from returning back to New York. Now as King, James felt that the liberties that had been contemplated were too broad and that the democracy was too liberal, which resulted in James never confirming the charter. In May 1686, Dongan received further instructions that the charter was not to go into effect. In 1689, James was overthrown, and in 1691, William and Mary appointed Henry Sloughter as the new governor. He gathered a new assembly who enacted “An act for declaring what are the rights and privileges of their Magesties’ subjects inhabiting within the province of New York.”

On September 12, 1695, the Jews of New York petitioned Dongan that their free exercise of their religion be counted among the liberties granted by King James back in 1683. Dongan declined their petition.

Almost a century later, in 1779, amid the revolutionary fervor of the colonists, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. It eventually passed the Virginia Assembly on January 16, 1786. Similar sentiments were included in the now-famous first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was sent by Congress to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789, and was ratified on December 15, 1791.

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