Despite his criticism of Islam, Jefferson supported the rights of its adherents. Evidence exists that Jefferson had been thinking privately about Muslim inclusion in his new country since 1776. A few months after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state, writing in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration”:
“(He) says neither Pagan nor Mahometan (Muslim) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”
Jefferson’s vision of religious freedom can be seen on full display in Congress. Of the 545 members of Congress, there are two Muslims, three Buddhists, three Hindus, thirty-two Jews, and a whopping 168 Catholics. In the most recent presidential election cycle, of the candidates running for president, there were seven Catholics19 and one Jew.20 Religious freedom, both people’s right to practice and the government’s prohibition of establishment, remains one of the most fiercely defended ideals in America today.
What is remarkable about the history of religious freedom in America is the lack of institutional religious discrimination. This particularly holds true when contrasted with racial discrimination. While individuals will always have their prejudices, there were no equivalent of Jim Crow laws for Catholics and Jews, and it was more difficult for nativist groups such as the Klan to go after religious minorities than racial minorities. Infamous Supreme Court decisions, such as Dred Scot v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu v. United States, all stripped Americans of their rights on a racial basis, although there is no such religious equivalent. In light of calls to strip Muslim-Americans of their rights, it is then important to remember the attitudes of Thomas Jefferson and the Founders. Although many held dim views of Islam, they believed the government had no authority to dictate a person’s conscience and no law should ever be passed restricting the full exercise of a person’s civil rights on the grounds of their religion.