When the nascent United States was drafting and adopting its supreme laws, several references to religion were made. For example, in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

- First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

There are also documents such as treaties testifying to the secular nature of the United States:

[T]he Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion

- Treat of Tripoli

And many of the states de-established their churches (inherited form England?) in the colonial era or in early decades. But all these seem to have taken place within a context of Abrahamic religions. For instance, the Treaty of Tripoli above was clearly directed at the Muslim Eyalet of Tripolitania. This made me wonder whether contemporary Americans understood their concept of free of religion as being applicable to non-Abrahamic faiths too. For example, that of the Native Americans.

So my question is, did native religions come up at all when the United States was adopting religious freedom into its fundamental laws? Did America's Founding Fathers or their contemporaries consider Native Americans and their beliefs?

For instance, was native religions mentioned during:

Note that I'm looking for the legal concept of freedom of religions being actually applied for Native American beliefs; not whether the concept should have applied.

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    I doubt they thought much about the Indian religion or considered them an organized faith, but on the other hand the ban on establishing a Christian faith kept the government from forcing the Native Americans to give up theirs by law.
    – Oldcat
    Oct 23, 2014 at 21:39
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    Colonial Williamsburg has a podcast of a debate between Jefferson and Henry which touches on the variety of religion. I don't have citation, but the discussion does touch on minority faiths -although I don't recall any explicit mention of non-Abrahamic faiths. OTOH, "faith" at the time was understood to mean "Church" which was tied to "state" - the Native Americans didn't have a "State" as the colonists understood the term.
    – MCW
    Oct 24, 2014 at 14:46
  • Were the native Americans considered to be citizens of the USA (ie if the law were applied to their life at all)? Many anthropologist of the time didn’t even considered their religion a proper religion/faith, so I would not think so.
    – Greg
    Oct 6, 2019 at 12:19

3 Answers 3


In theory, yes that would cover any religion. In practice, not just no but hell no.

Indian cultures, of which their religious beliefs were an integral part, were considered uncivilized and inferior. In the logic of time, this naturally meant the Indian "way of life" was an active harm to the Indians, as well as a standing threat to their neighbors.

As such there was a concerted effort to eradicate their culture, and convert the Indians to the European-American cultural package of English, Christianity, and agriculture*. Particularly in the 19th and early 20th century there was a philosophy among Americans and Western Europeans that along with the benefits of having a more powerful and advanced culture came a responsibility to bring those benefits to the rest of the world that was clearly saddled with inferior cultures. (Some would argue this attitude persists largely unchanged today).

Thus were born the American Indian boarding schools. The idea was that older Indians may be "set in their ways", but if you could take their kids away from them, you could raise them in the American culture instead, which always included Christianity. Generally at these schools (many run by the US government) children were forbidden to speak their native languages, wear their native dress, or practice their native religion. The schools were theoretically voluntary, but eventually the BIA started requiring education of all children to a western standard, which left many tribes with no other option.

Things are much better these days, but in many ways its too late now. The Native "churches" I'm aware of are all heavily influenced by Christianity. The original religions are all but lost.

* - It was (and often still is) actually a bit of a myth that Native Americans didn't practice agriculture. Most did, but it was generally considered women's work. So the main difference here was really cultural rather than practical.

  • 1
    Interesting, thanks. Am I correct to infer from this ("In practice, no ... there was a concerted effort to eradicate their culture") that no one could defend native culture on the grounds of freedom of religion. Did anyone try?
    – Semaphore
    Oct 24, 2014 at 13:50
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    Since the attacks on Indian culture tended to be multi-pronged, there were generally better legs to stand on (eg: property rights, freedom of assembly) than the practice of their "heathen" religon. Not that it mattered much. When Congress or the Courts made decisions in the Indians favor, they were typically just ignored.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 24, 2014 at 14:14
  • Looking back on this, I should add that within the last half a century Native Americans have won several court cases (and lost a few) affirming their right to use peyote as a sacrament for their native religion. However, as I touched on above, the religion in question is a post-contact religion, of roughly the same vintage as Mormonisim, not any one tribe's original pre-contact religion.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 17, 2018 at 14:35

I doubt native faiths were discussed much. The Founding Fathers would have considered American Indian's First Amendment rights to be a non-issue because Indians were not recognized as citizens unless they were of at least half European ancestry. In fact, judges could cite native religion as the reason why Indians were denied the rights and protections of American citizens. Justice Joseph Story wrote in 1823:

As infidels, heathens, and savages, they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations. . . [Indians are] an inferior race of people, without the privileges of citizens, and under the perpetual protection and pupilage of the government.

Indians on American land were "domestic dependent nations," which in no way implied citizenship rights. In 1819, Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act, which funded "benevolent societies" to act as missionaries to the Indians. These societies were:

. . . for the purpose of guarding against the further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes, adjoining the frontier settlements of the United States, [and] introducing among them the habits and arts of civilization.

In other words, the Federal government saw proselytization as an arm of foreign policy. That Indians were foreign concerns, not domestic ones, was made even clearer in 1824, when the Office of Indian Affairs was created within the War Department.

After the Civil War, reservations were often overseen by religious men nominated by churches. Unsurprisingly, there are many instances of native religions being discouraged and punished (as @T.E.D. discusses).

Indian citizenship rights were slowly expanded after the Civil War, culminating in the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Before this act, Indian heritage and native religious beliefs could disqualify one from citizenship rights, so it seems unlikely that Indians would ever have had the legal standing to claim First Amendment protections for their religion before the 20th century.

  • "The Founding Fathers would have considered American Indian's First Amendment rights to be a non-issue because Indians were not recognized as citizens" The First Amendment says nothing about it applying only to citizens. Apr 17, 2018 at 21:12

The ONLY legal consequence of the establishment clause is that the federal government can't force people to adopt a specific religion. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course over time it's been corrupted to where many think it means the government is not allowed to allow any religion, to not allow any of its employees to be openly religious, but this is blatantly false.

As such there is nothing in the establishment clause that would prevent the government from putting an end to a religion, as long as it doesn't force its (former) adherents from adopting a specific other religion. AFAIK though that never happened, though local leaders might have taken a different view and some of the individual states for a while did have a state religion and may have persecuted those who were not members (again, I don't know it happened, but the establishment clause did not prevent such. Later ammendments turned changed that and now it is the law for state governments as well that they can't force a specific religion on their citizens.

Remember that the US constitution declared freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. As such it would not allow the federal government to persecute American Indians based on their religious beliefs, as long as those were recognised to be a religion rather than a quaint selection of rituals.

And why would they need to? There were enough reasons already to go after them, not in the least the repeated and deadly raids by American Indian groups on homesteaders and wagon trains.

I won't pass judgment on whether those were in any way "justified", it doesn't matter. Citizens were being killed by Indians, the army went out and dealt with those Indians. Same as SWAT now goes out and goes after gangs that attack people inner cities.

The sole reason they might have gone after the religious practices of the American Indians is if those were in violation of other laws. Human sacrifice for example, or the killing of protected animal species (though there was probably very little in the way of protected animal species at the time, and I've not heard of north American Indians performing human sacrifice. In later years Indians have complained that bans on hunting whales, seals, etc. violate their religious rights and they've gotten some dispensation because of that, allowing them to hunt limited numbers).

  • 1
    Thanks, but I'm actually asking for cases of consideration being given to Indian religions in the early United States (within the context of freedom of religion). You might have been misled by my poor wording (sorry, I really struggled to phrase the question), but this answer seems to be mostly about how it theoretically(?) would have applied to Indians instead. If you could add examples of what I'm looking for I'll upvote this answer.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 24, 2014 at 13:10
  • I cannot parse paragraph 3 "Of course over time. . . " (note: because I cannot parse, I cannot agree or disagree; I'm not arguing, I'm just looking for clarification).
    – MCW
    Oct 24, 2014 at 13:35
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    "The ONLY legal consequence of the establishment clause is that the federal government can't force people to adopt a specific religion." The question asked about religious freedom in general, not the establishment clause specifically. Also, you seem to be conflating your personal interpretation with what actually is. "Of course over time it's been corrupted to where many think it means the government is not allowed to allow any religion" That's a blatant strawman. You not being allowed to use the government to push your religion on others is not the government not allowing religion. Apr 22, 2018 at 23:37
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    This answer has been flagged multiple times for multiple causes. I suspect it will not survive another flag.
    – MCW
    Dec 16, 2022 at 15:40
  • 1
    It's been up for 8 years, and has no sources as well as flags. Why wait for another flag? It's only still here as a relic of a time before discriminatory content was rigourously expunged.
    – Ne Mo
    Dec 17, 2022 at 14:15

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