Religion is one of those subjects that people often avoid talking about if they don’t know you well. On the flip side, religious fanatics can go overboard and shove their beliefs in your face. Regardless of your beliefs, you have a constitutional right to believe and worship how you choose, which is known as freedom of religion. Unfortunately, religious intolerance still exists.
“Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity, the very diversity which our heritage or religious freedom has inspired.”—Robert Kennedy reminds that America is diverse because of different beliefs, including religion. Religious freedom is one of the many sought-after liberties and why the United States continues to be a destination for immigrants searching for freedom.
“I think we recognize as Americans there are certain things that are just primary to the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy here and religious freedom is one of the most important things we as Americans cherish.”—Ann Romney.
Freedom of Religion and the First Amendment
Your right to religious freedom is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is the first protected right in this amendment.
The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The first part of the amendment is the Establishment Clause. This clause restricts the government from establishing one, official religion or from creating a law that shows religious preference. It is from this clause that the separation of church and state began.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson unknowingly added to the concept of a separate church and state. In Jefferson’s response letter to a Baptist group in Connecticut asking for a national day of religious fasting, Jefferson reminded the group of the First Amendment’s rules and concluded by saying it build a “wall of separation between church and state.”
This church and state separation concept has caused some concern over freedom of religion. Instead of allowing each religious believer to speak of or worship in their style, and teaching about the benefits of each religions, the school system does not speak of religion at all. In some schools, religion and references to it, such as the creation-theory, are removed from textbooks.
It seems that when children want to show others about their religion, the First Amendment rights do not carry over into the classroom. As a result, freedom of religion court cases have taken place. One example is the case of second grader, Kelly DeNooyer, who brought a video tape of her religious performance to show her class. DeNooyer’s teacher prevented her from showing the tape to the class, so DeNooyer’s family sued the Livonia school system in 1993. The verdict- the court declared that school classrooms were not to allow free expressions, but only to provide education. The teacher did not violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion by stopping a child from showing a religious video to her classmates.
If children are exposed to different types of religions, they can make the choices for themselves. According to Mitt Romney—“Religious freedom opens a door for Americans that is closed to too many others around the world. But whether we walk through the door, and what we do with our lives after we do, is up to us.”
Free Exercise Clause Definition
The second part of the amendment is the Free Exercise Clause. This clause prevents the government from interfering with the way you practice your religion. Your rituals may be limited by laws, such as drug use or arson, but you are able to worship the way you want, when you want and where you want- as long as you’re not trespassing.
Some Constitutional Conflict?
Some constitutional scholars argue that the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause create conflict, since there is a slight disagreement between the two. If the free exercise clause is correct, the DeNooyer should be able to show her religious video to anyone, anytime, anywhere. On the flip side, it may be a violation of the Establishment Clause if the U.S. government gives special attention or recognition to one particular religion.
Freedom of religion Supreme Court cases were involved in this debate as early as 1940. Then, in Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court agreed that according to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Free Exercise Clause takes precedent over state and local governments.
These court cases have a big impact and will either protect and defend your rights, or squash them. You may not always agree with the decisions, but the ultimate goal is to allow for religious diversity and freedom. Because of the Amendment, you are allowed to believe in the God of your choice and worship the way you like, or not believe at all.
“Protection of religious freedom means considering the faiths and beliefs of everyone involved.”—Mike Quigley
Freedom of Religion Cases
Other court cases involving freedom of religion in the schools are those such as Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968. Susan Epperson, a teacher, tried to overrule a previous law that prevented teaching the theory of evolution. The Supreme Court decided that the state’s public school curriculum should contain secular material and that to prohibit this violates the Establishment Clause.
It is not up to the state to promote or exclude any religion. Pope Benedict XVI says “A just laicism allows religious freedom. The state does not impose religion but rather gives space to religions with a responsibility toward civil society, and therefore it allows these religions to be factors in building up society.”
The Lack of Freedom: Grave Consequences
Other countries may not offer the same religious freedoms. It is in these countries that religious minorities suffer the most. Laws are passed to prevent you from worshiping against the government’s established religion and the consequences are unique. A few examples include:
- You must divorce your spouse if he writes a book against the established religion.
- Capital punishment for speaking out against the established religion.
- Capital punishment if you change your religion to something other than the established faith.
- Females punished for working outside of the home if it is against the established faith.
Belief or Opinion
Your religious beliefs are opinions. Yes, you’ve been taught your faith and can defend it based on sacred words, but ultimately it is an opinion. Like other opinions, you cannot convince your friends, family, neighbors or co-workers to feel the same. You can live your life based on your beliefs and be good to everyone regardless of theirs.
“As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom- both domestic and international- as well as matters of the culture and the American family.”—Frank Wolf
The goal is to improve our society, not limit it. When religious intolerance occurs and people are bullied or discriminated against for their religion- we have a problem. Religion is a very personal issue and one you hope to pass down to your children. It begins in the home and in the safety of your chosen worship center, but the actions, morals and beliefs continue once you exit those walls.
You carry your religion with you when you drive, shop, work and play. You choose whether or not to be an example of your faith and live your life based on your beliefs. Your beliefs do not stop when you exit the building of worship. Other believers do not stop their beliefs when they are not in church. In an effort to bring peace to this nation, freedom of religion needs to be expanded to tolerance of religion.