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Freedom of Religion

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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The First Amendment provides for freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. These protections of individual freedoms may conflict with the need for order—an example of the original dilemma of government discussed in Chapter 1. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in two clauses. The first, the establishment clause, forbids any law that would create an official religion; the second, the free-exercise clause, prevents the government from interfering with the practice of religion. The establishment clause erected “a wall of separation between church and state.” The government is also supposed to be neutral between religions and between the religious and the nonreligious. On certain issues, such as government aid to church-related schools, the Supreme Court has allowed what opponents have seen as violations of the establishment clause. Reasoning that textbook loans and transportation are aids to students, not churches, the Court has allowed some support to church schools. In 1971, the Lemon test put forth guidelines for determining constitutionality under the establishment clause. The Court loosened its application of the Lemon test by allowing public school teachers to provide government-mandated classes to disadvantaged youngsters in New York parochial schools. A 2002 decision upholding school voucher programs further weakened the standards outlined in Lemon. The Supreme Court has also relaxed restrictions on the use of public funding for Christmas displays. On the issue of school prayer, however, the Court has maintained a consistent position that public school prayer violates the establishment clause. In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down the practice of organized student-led prayer at public high school football games.

The free-exercise clause also gives rise to conflicts when the practice of a certain religion leads a person to do what is forbidden by law or to refuse to do what is required by law. A person may not be forced to take a job that requires him or her to work on the Sabbath, but the Court has forbidden participation in traditional religious rituals that involve the use of illegal drugs. The Court reasoned that religious beliefs are inviolate, but antisocial actions in the name of religion are not protected by the Constitution. The perceived narrowing of the range of free expression of religion led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that required the government to meet strict scrutiny before interfering with religious practices. The Court quickly ruled the popular act unconstitutional, noting that Congress could not change the Constitution.