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Religious Freedom

About This Guide

The content of this guide was originally created and compiled by Professor Jeffrey K. Hadden, who died in 2003, for his web site, “The Religious Freedom Page,” in conjunction with a course on New Religious Movements that he taught at UVA for more than twenty years. His original web site was an assembly of many resources on the topic of religious freedom, both for exploring broad philosophical and theoretical issues and also for examining the status of religious freedom in the United States and in nations around the world.

In this guide we've transferred much of the content and resources from Professor Hadden's Religious Freedom site into an updated format that we hope will be useful to members of the UVA community and other researchers with their research on this topic.  This guide combines links to historical and contemporary texts, statements, and court cases on religious freedom; links to external organizations and reports related to religious freedom and human rights; and annotated lists of UVA library resources (both digital and print) that can be used for research on religious freedom topics.

Mission Statement

Those who were most responsible for the American experiment with democracy believed that religion should exist in a zone where both belief and practice were beyond political authority. This was a radical idea in the 18th century and it remains a radical idea today. The United Nations, and most of the world's nations, have embraced principles and passed legislation guaranteeing freedom of religion. Still, the realization of the fundamental right to believe and practice a religion of one's choice remains an illusive ideal.

This guide is dedicated to helping researchers explore the idea of religious freedom in its fullest implications. Toward this end we have assembled many resources including historical documents, constitutions, laws, court decisions, information about religious freedom organizations, and a broad array of information pertinent to exploring religious freedom in every nation.

We welcome you and invite you to explore the resources here assembled. We also welcome constructive criticism and suggestions of ways this guide might be helpful to students of religious freedom.


Through the annals of time there has existed an inseparable link between religion and liberty. Those who have claimed liberty in the name of their God have, of course, used religion to legitimate their struggle to be free. The alliance between religion and liberty, however, runs deeper than a powerful source of legitimacy for overturning the status quo in human relationships.

Social contracts, whether they are based on egalitarian principles or tyranny, are arrangements between human beings. Covenants, on the other hand, are sacred arrangements between God and God's people. Covenants transcend social contracts, and are believed to endure for all time. The heavy hand of tyrants, as well as "ordinary" man-made institutions, may deny the promise of a covenant. That does not alter the Truth that believers share regarding special arrangements with God.

Freedoms attained by social contract are always precarious because not only may contracts be breached, they may be torn up and rewritten to the advantage of one group over another. Martin Luther King Jr's brilliant Letter From a Birmingham Jail acknowledges the legality of unjust laws that imprisoned him for civil disobedience. While accepting the consequences of his violation of the law, he appeals to a higher law and authority for deliverance from unjust laws and social milieu that continued to suppress Blacks a century after the Civil War that was fought to emancipate them.

This appeal to the authority of the Almighty has been invoked repeated throughout the ages. Moses appeal to Pharaoh to free the Israelites was in the name of God. The Truths identified as self-evident by the North American colonists who sought to loose themselves from England are found anchored in "unalienable Rights" endowed by their Creator. Thomas Jefferson's celebrated Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom concludes by acknowledging that the General Assembly of Virginia, who would pass the legislation, could not bind future legislators. But he counseled future legislators that if they did elect to repeal or narrow its operation, "such an act would be an infringement of natural right."

However conceived, as the God of the Israelites, the Enlightenment concept of Nature's God, an Eastern religious tradition that does not organize meaning around the concept of 'God," or a synchronistic contemporary faith tradition, religion is a powerful motivator. To be sure, through the ages people have also been motivated, in the name of God, to commit heinous acts beyond imagination. And, similarly, others have sought to persecute, and even eliminate, other groups because they professed to believe in a God unfamiliar to the dominant culture. Regrettably, religiously driven negative motivations remain among the most troubling of human activities as we begin a new millennium. The atrocities committed in the name of religion do not diminish one iota the inextricable link that binds the human spirit's quest for freedom to religion.

Democracy has emerged as the dominant form of government in the twentieth century. This, with the parallel expansion of individual liberty, is among the greatest of human achievements in any century.

It has now been over a half a century since the United Nations set forth a resolution declaring a broad array of "universal human rights." If we have made some gigantic strides toward the achievement of democracy, freedom, and universal human rights during this century, the goals are yet far from being universal in fact.

In our own country, in the last quarter of the 20th century the U.S. became the most religiously pluralistic nation on earth. Civility requires that we go beyond mere tolerance to respect and celebrate our cultural and religious diversity.