Maryland Toleration Act

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The Maryland Toleration Act, also known as the Act Concerning Religion, was a law mandating religious tolerance for trinitarian Christians. Passed on April 21, 1649 by the assembly of the Maryland colony, it was the second law requiring religious tolerance in the British North American colonies and created the first legal limitations on hate speech in the world. (The colony which became Rhode Island passed a series of laws, the first in 1636, which prohibited religious persecution including against non-Trinitarians; Rhode Island was also the first government to separate church and state.) Historians argue that it helped inspire later legal protections for freedom of religion in the United States. The Calvert family, who founded Maryland partly as a refuge for English Catholics, sought enactment of the law to protect Catholic settlers and those of other religions that did not conform to the dominant Anglicanism of Britain and her colonies.

The Act allowed freedom of worship for all trinitarian Christians in Maryland, but sentenced to death anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus. It was revoked in 1654 by William Claiborne, a Virginian who had been appointed as a commissioner by Oliver Cromwell and was a staunch advocate for the Anglican Church. When the Calverts regained control of Maryland, the Act was reinstated, before being repealed permanently in 1692 following the Glorious Revolution. As the first law on religious tolerance in the British North America, it influenced related laws in other colonies and portions of it were echoed in the writing of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which enshrined religious freedom in American law.


Origin of the law

The Maryland colony founded by Cecilius Calvert in 1634. Like his father George Calvert, who had originated the efforts that led to the colony's charter, Cecilius Calvert was Catholic at a time when England was dominated by the Anglican Church.[1] The Calverts intended the colony as a haven for Catholics fleeing England and as a source of income for themselves and their descendants.[2] Many of Maryland's first settlers were Catholic, including at least two Catholic priests, one of whom became the earliest chronicler of the colony's history.[3] But whatever Calvert's intentions, Maryland was a colony of an Anglican nation. Its charter had been granted by an Anglican king and seems to have assumed that the Church of England would be its official church. Anglican and later Puritan newcomers quickly came to outnumber the early Catholic settlers. Thus, by 1649 when the law was passed, the colonial assembly was dominated by Protestants, and the law was in effect an act of Protestant tolerance for Catholics, rather than the reverse.[2]

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