The First Amendment

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Last Updated By Bill's Bible Basics :
February 16, 2017

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The opening two clauses of the First Amendment deal precisely with the issue of what the government can and cannot do with respect to religion. The Establishment Clause, which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .

guarantees the separation of religion from government, and the Free Exercise Clause:

or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

prohibits the government from interfering with individuals' rights to worship as they choose. Together these principles protect our freedom to practice any religion or no religion at all.

Religious freedom is one of the most important traditions and constitutional rights we have. This right, however, has been contested and clarified in our courts which to this day continue to define where to draw the line that separates church and state. The body of law on the church/state relationship has been evolving since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Yet it was not until the 1940s that the Supreme Court began interpreting whether a particular policy or law violated the First Amendment with respect to religion. see school prayer rulings


When the First Amendment was adopted, most of the original thirteen colonies still had official "established" churches. In much of New England, the Congregational Church was established, and throughout the South, the Anglican. With the power of the government behind them, these denominations often persecuted the members of various minority religions. Baptists, Quakers, Jews and others were denied the right to hold public office and were required to pay taxes to support the established church. By the time the Constitution was framed, many of its authors had come to believe strongly in "disestablishment." For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the need for "a wall of separation between church and state," and in 1785 James Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance that "[r]eligion is not helped by establishment, but is hurt by it." In 1791, when the Bill of Rights was adopted, it reflected this view. More than a century and a half later, in 1971, the Supreme Court decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman established a three-part test for determining whether a law or government policy has breached the wall between church and state. The Lemon test, still used by the courts today, asks: (1) whether the government's action has a religious purpose; (2) whether the primary effect of the government's action is to advance or endorse religion; and (3) whether the government's action fosters excessive government "entanglement" with religion. If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then the law or policy violates the Establishment Clause. see school prayer rulings, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)


The roots of the Free Exercise Clause reach back to the country's early colonial history. Roger Williams, who fled religious persecution in England and, in 1644, founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious minorities, said it was God's command that "a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all Nations and Countries." In spite of this sentiment, intolerance has occasionally threatened religious minorities' freedom of worship. The Supreme Court, therefore, beginning in 1940, handed down a series of decisions that formed a bulwark of protection for religious liberty. In 1940, the Court upheld the right of Jehovah's Witnesses to proselytize on a street corner (Cantwell v. Connecticut). In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah's Witness children could not be forced to salute the flag in public schools (West Virginia v. Barnette). In 1963, the Court held that a Seventh Day Adventist could not be denied unemployment insurance because she refused to work on Saturdays (Sherbert v. Verner). And in 1972, the Court overturned the conviction of an Amish parent who refused to send his children to school beyond eighth grade (Wisconsin v. Yoder). Not all religious practice is protected, however, even though the freedom to believe is absolute. To determine whether a particular religious ritual is covered by the Free Exercise Clause, the Supreme Court developed a test: A person or group must show (1) that the ritual is motivated by "sincere religious belief," and (2) that the state has imposed a "substantial burden" on the practice. If these two criteria are met, the government must accommodate the religious practice unless the government can show that it has a "compelling interest" in restricting the practice, and that its restriction is the most lenient way possible (the "least restrictive means") of serving that interest

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