Since the Williamsburg Charter deals with the role of religion in American public life, I'm reminded of a story about the clergyman who began his Sunday morning sermon by asking “O Lord, have you seen the New York Times today?”
It is almost a given that we can't understand the present unless we understand the past. Understanding religious liberty today, and its comparative absence in the past, is no exception. Since we're in Maryland, let's take a look at some of the history in this state, concerning the religious liberty we all cherish. Long before American independence, in 1649, Maryland passed its Act of Toleration. In keeping with the spirit of the time, however, toleration was granted only to Trinitarian Christians. That same law actually prescribed the death penalty for any person who denied that Jesus was the son of God or who denied the Holy Trinity. Maryland's first constitution, adopted in 1776, guaranteed the right to hold public office to all who subscribed to a “declaration of belief in the Christian religion.” In 1801, Thomas Jefferson appointed Reuben Etting, a Jew from Baltimore, to the post of United States Marshal for Maryland. Yet, at that very time, the fact that Etting was a Jew meant that he was barred under the Maryland constitution from holding any state office.