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Pennsylvania was founded on religious freedom


Photo by Sonja Reis; A 36-foot bronze statue of Pennsylvania’s founder and namesake William Penn is located atop Philadephia’s city hall.

No people can be truly happy, though under the greatest enjoyments of civil liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Conscience as to their Religious Profession and Worship.

~ William Penn (Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties, 1701)


By Tara Yilmaz

→ Did you know in 1701, William Penn created a Charter of Privileges for the residents of his colony? Penn envisioned a colony that permitted religious freedom, the consent and participation of the governed, as well as other laws pertaining to property rights.

→ Did you know that Pennsylvania's founding principle was religious freedom? This principle became the hallmark of Penn’s vision dating back to an incident in England. A group of Quakers arrived at their church in England and found the doors locked by government officials. Penn protested that infringement by holding service outside of the church. He was arrested, charged then tried for his defiance but the jury cleared him of all wrongdoing. The jury was arrested and ordered to convict Penn but they acquitted him again. Instead of waiting around for a third prosecution, Penn thought it best to migrate to America. Motivated by his past persecutions, William Penn constructed Pennsylvania to be the first sovereignty to promote religious tolerance.

“All men have a natural and indefensible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship."

– Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I:

Section 3

→ Did you know Penn believed it was necessary to establish laws to protect his new home that weren't provided to him in England? His altruism in freedom from religious persecution prevented him from creating an anti-Catholicism state out of revenge. In Pennsylvania, there is no acceptable reason for the government to involve itself in the affairs of any citizen's religious beliefs. The state's legislature has enacted numerous safeguards for religious rights throughout the history of this Commonwealth. Civil lawsuit judgments and convictions in criminal trials have been overturned because lawyers raised arguments or introduced evidence on defendants' religions into those proceedings. [See: Statute 42 Pa. C. S. § 5902 (b)]

→ Did you know Penn's influence helped shape America when the architects of the United States Constitution put religious freedom rights for every citizen in the First Amendment? Members of the American government are allowed to believe or not believe in any religion they choose. However, no active governmental agent can promote any faith or influence anyone away from theirs. This is to ensure that nobody in the minority experiences religious oppression or isolation. The government is completely separated from any faith. Many states like Pennsylvania have areas with different religious majorities and that separation is critical in maintaining equality across the country.

→ Did you know the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment prohibits the country and every state from having an official religion or opposing others? This clause protects citizens' rights not to be persecuted by their government for belonging to a minority religion as Penn was in England. In America, government agencies belong to citizens of every religion just as much as they do for those without one. Therefore, governmental buildings cannot permanently exhibit religious scriptures or decorations. However, the government will close down or excuse businesses out of respect for religious holidays.

→ Did you know the Free Exercise Clause mandates equal treatment from the government among different religions? If a benefit is given to one religious group, then that same courtesy must be extended to all faiths. This clause also prevents the government from dictating how groups practice religion.

→ Did you know Philadelphia honored William Penn with its famous statue that stands among the skyline? It used to be illegal to erect a building higher than Penn's statue in Philadelphia. There are many streets and buildings throughout Pennsylvania which pay tribute by bearing his name. Like Pittsburgh's Penn Avenue; it’s 8.4 miles long and runs from downtown all the way through East Liberty. Erecting statues and naming streets after Penn are not the only ways to honor him. Perhaps the best way to fulfill William Penn's vision would be for the citizens of Pennsylvania to embrace religious tolerance.



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