Long before the First Amendment was adopted, the assembly of the Province of Maryland passed “An Act Concerning Religion,” also called the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649. The act was meant to ensure freedom of religion for Christian settlers of diverse persuasions in the colony.
Toleration Act made blasphemy a crime
The law made it a crime to blaspheme God, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, or the early apostles and evangelists. It also forbade one resident from referring to another’s religion in a disparaging way and it provided for honoring the Sabbath.
Maryland was settled under a charter sought by George Calvert, who had established a previous colony in Newfoundland. His death shortly before the charter was sealed in 1632 resulted in its transfer to his son, Cecil, with George Calvert’s second son, Leonard Calvert, becoming the first governor of the colony.
Because they were Roman Catholics, the law has sometimes been interpreted as a means of providing Catholics with religious freedom. However, the law was adopted by an Anglican majority, and according to Dargo (1996), it has been described less as “a product of the liberalism of theory” than as “a practical device for making Maryland more attractive to settlers of diverse religious persuasions” (p. 346).
Maryland nullified this law from 1654 to 1661 and from 1692 to the end of the Revolutionary period, indicating that Maryland was not always a model of religious toleration during this period.
Toleration Act was the first to refer to “free exercise” of religion
This law appears to have been the first in America to refer specifically to “the free exercise” of religion (See McConnell, 1990, p. 1425), the term later used to protect religious freedom in the First Amendment.