Religious Liberty, or Liberty of Conscience, is the recognition and assertion by the state of the right of every man, in the profession of opinion and in the outward forms and requirements of religion, to do or abstain from doing whatever his individual conscience or sense of right suggests. Religious liberty is opposed to the imposition by the state of any arbitrary restrictions on forms of worship or the propagation of religious opinions, or to the enacting of any binding forms of worship or belief. The limit of religious liberty is necessarily the right of the state to maintain order, prevent excesses, and guard against encroachments on private right. In the organization of civil and ecclesiastical government which prevailed from Constantine to the Reformation, persecution was in general only limited by dissent; and universal submission to the dominant Church became the condition of religious peace throughout Christendom, while religious liberty was unknown. The contest of opinion begun at the Reformation had the effect of establishing religious liberty, as far as it at present exists, but the principle itself was so far from being understood and accepted in its purity by either party that it hardly suggested itself even to the most enlightened reasoners of that age. While the American colonies were dependent on Great Britain, religious liberty in the full sense existed only in Rhode Island, toleration in Maryland having been limited by laws which punished conscientious utterances regarding religious dogmas as blasphemy. For many years after independence the laws of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut limited religious liberty.
Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia,