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Civil Liberties in the United States

1st Amendment and Freedom of Religion

Religious Freedom in Historical Context

With origins in colonial times, American civil liberties include freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

The 1st Amendment forbids Congress from making any law "respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first part, often called the establishment clause, is the clause in the 1st Amendment forbidding laws creating an official, state-supported religion. The second part—the free exercise clause—is the clause of the 1st Amendment that forbids government interference with people's freedom of religious worship. Thus, American civil liberties include both freedom from and freedom of religion. These principles did not apply to the states, however, and until 1833 Congregationalism was the official religion of Massachusetts.

The free exercise of religion is deeply rooted in colonial history before the Revolution. A number of the colonies were founded largely for religious freedom. Puritan Roger Williams, for example, left the Puritan-dominated colony of Massachusetts to establish a colony in Rhode Island that practiced religious toleration. Quakers found refuge in Pennsylvania, and Roman Catholics led the colonists who founded Maryland, which passed a law establishing religious freedom in that colony.

In drafting the 1st Amendment, the framers undertook a delicate balancing act. From its very beginnings, America was a complex mix of diverse creeds and cultures. During the American Revolution in 1777, Thomas Jefferson reflected this reality in his drafting of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Enacted into law in Virginia in early 1786, this statute was a notable forerunner of the 1st Amendment.

Landmark Supreme Court Rulings on the Establishment Clause

In rulings on the establishment clause, the Supreme Court upheld the strict separation of church and state, articulating the three principles of the Lemon test to determine whether a law with a religious impact is constitutional.

In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court was called on to decide if school-sponsored prayer violated the establishment clause. The prayers involved were nondenominational, and children who found them objectionable were allowed to be absent. Despite these factors, the court decided that school prayer violated the framers' wall of separation of church and state, the principle embodied in the establishment and free exercise clauses of the 1st Amendment, whereby religion and government are separate spheres.

Lemon v. Kurtzman, decided in 1972, addressed the establishment clause in another way and introduced a significant test to evaluate the issue. Both Pennsylvania and Rhode Island had laws that, to some degree, provided state funding to support private religious schools. Citizens and taxpayers in both states sued, on the grounds that these laws violated the establishment clause. The Supreme Court agreed and struck down both state laws. The decision set forth the Lemon test for deciding establishment cases. To avoid violating the establishment clause, a law must

1. have a nonreligious purpose, 2. have a principal effect that neither advances or inhibits religious practice, and 3. avoid "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

Landmark Supreme Court Rulings on the Free Exercise Clause

In Cantwell v. Connecticut, Wisconsin v. Yoder, and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, the Supreme Court struck down state or city actions seen as infringing on individuals' free exercise of religion. However, in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources, Oregon v. Smith, it upheld state action on the grounds that free exercise of religion does not remove the duty to comply with a valid law.

The free exercise clause involves instances in which religious belief clashes with laws that may have been passed with no religious consideration in mind. In Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), the Cantwells, who were Jehovah's Witnesses, were carrying out missionary work in a heavily Roman Catholic neighborhood. An anti-Catholic message on the Cantwells' portable phonograph provoked the anger of two pedestrians. The Cantwells were arrested for solicitation without a permit and for breaching the peace. The Supreme Court ruled that restrictions based on religious grounds were unconstitutional. The Cantwells' missionary message, the court said, did not entail any threat of bodily harm and amounted to protected religious speech.

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) involved the state's prosecution of three Amish families that refused to send their children to school past eighth grade, contrary to state law. The court unanimously found that the families' 1st Amendment right to free exercise overruled the state law since the values and teachings of high school ran counter to their religion. The court also said that the state failed to demonstrate that two more years of schooling would make a significant difference to the students' lives.

In two significant cases, the court struck down laws that seemed aimed at particular religious practices. Employment Division, Department of Human Resources, Oregon v. Smith (1990) involved two Native Americans who were fired from their jobs for smoking the drug peyote in religious ceremonies and then denied unemployment compensation because the firings were found to be based on their misconduct. When the state supreme court ruled that the law violated their free exercise rights, the state appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court found in the state's favor, saying that free exercise rights do not prevent compliance with a valid law. Just three years later, though, the court struck down a city law that involved free exercise. The city of Hialeah, Florida, passed an ordinance banning animal sacrifice for religious purposes. Members of a church that practices Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion, sued to block the law. In Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993), the court found in the church's favor, concluding that the law was not religiously neutral or applicable to the general population.