The Historical Roots of Maryland Church Law

Posted on by Thomas Schetelich in Church Law.

Maryland’s law concerning Churches and Religious Corporations grows out of the State’s history of religious freedom, which is the oldest such tradition in the Nation.   The General Assembly of Maryland, meeting in St. Mary’s City, adopted The Act of Toleration (formally “An Act Concerning Religion”) on April 21, 1649.

This Act secured religious freedom for all Christians “inhabiting, residing, trafficking, trading or commercing within this Province.”  The Act established both policy and protection for religious worship:

 And whereas the enforcing of the conscience in matters of religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous consequence in those commonwealths where it hath been practised, and for the more quiet and peaceable government of this province, and the better to preserve mutual love and amity among the inhabitants thereof, be it therefore also by the Lord proprietary with the advise and consent of this assembly ordered and enacted …  that no person or persons whatsoever within this province … professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any ways troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this province … nor any way compelled to the belief or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent ….  

Prior to the adoption of the Bill of Rights (passed by Congress in 1789), Freedom of Religion was not guaranteed in the various States.   Nine of the thirteen States went so far as to have State sponsored religions.  Only Maryland and Rhode Island guaranteed religious freedom at the time the Constitution was adopted.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Finally, the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Article 36, 1867) secures Freedom of Religion to all persons within the State:

Art. 36. That as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to Him, all persons are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; wherefore, no person ought by any law to be molested in his person or estate, on account of his religious persuasion, or profession, or for his religious practice, unless, under the color of religion, he shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the state, or shall infringe the laws of morality, or injure others in their natural, civil or religious rights; nor ought any person to be compelled to frequent, or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain, any place of worship, or any ministry; …

This historical tradition has been reflected in Maryland statutory and case law from the earliest days of the State, and has created a body of law by which there is less interference from the legislature and the courts than exists in other jurisdictions.  These protections are jealously guarded by the Maryland Courts, and secure great latitude to Religious Corporations and Churches.

By Thomas Schetelich