The Convergence of the First Amendment and Vatican II On Religious Freedom

Did the United States radiate the views of James Madison on the free exercise of religion to the world? That, in essence, is the main thrust of this provocative study by John T. Noonan, Jr., Professor Emeritus at the University of California Law School, Berkeley, and a Senior Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Noonan is, of course, the author of magisterial books on abortion, birth control, legal ethics, and related issues. He writes as a committed Catholic who takes pride in the religion that he learned as a child in his native Brookline, Massachusetts. In Catholic circles and far beyond he is regarded as a scholar who combines the insight of faith with the voice of reason. In thirteen closely argued chapters Noonan describes how James Madison was instrumental in securing adoption of the “free exercise” of religion in the First Amendment. This formulation has a very special significance since it was not the idea of a secularist or a deist, but of a person close to and active in the Anglican church. The sixteen words of the First Amendment banning the establishment of religion and guaranteeing its free exercise had a profound effect in guaranteeing that there be no state-sponsored religion and that believers enjoyed, with some exceptions, the right to practice their religious beliefs.