Answer: The United States Constitution, which is made up of the preamble, articles and amendments, contains one short sentence that governs religion within the United States. That sentence is found within the first amendment and states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The sentence in not abiguous, but has been argued over before the U.S. Supreme Court hundreds of times.
What the “Freedom of Religion” clause, as it is known, simply states is that the government of the United States is forever barred from enacting any laws that attempt to establish a National religion, or in anyway interfering with the practice of religion. A brief history lesson shows that the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted to ensure that no one particular religion became “the” nation’s religion as Catholasism was in England.
The more complex problem is that the clause has been sited by many as the basis for all sorts of freedoms as they relate to religion. Just a few of the cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding religion include such subject matters as government aid to religious schools, prayer in schools, legislative prayer, preference among religions, prisoners’ rights, public forum, moment of silence and contientious objectors. The Court’s duty when hearing any case is to determine if a violation of the Constitution exists regarding a specific portion of the Constitution as it relates to a complaint.
The most obvious purpose of the clause is that the government must permit the free practice of religion without persecution of believers, regardless of which faith. That is a huge human right that the Founding Fathers wanted written directly into the Constitution. It was considered so fundamental that it was not left to each of the State’s to decide for themselves. As a matter of fact, it was so important to the Founding Fathers because they believed that religion would absolutely become the source for conflict and war if not included in the Constitution.
A comparison of the freedom of religion doctrine demonstrates how an ambiguity may arise. An individual citizen of the United States may freely practice any chosen religion that does not injure others. In China, although the Chinese Constitution provides for freedom of religion, the government restricts religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship. The five registered religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism, which sounds “free;” however, a government-affiliated association monitors the activities of each sanctioned religion.
Freedom of Religion has been relied upon in the United States to attempt to curtail all sorts of conduct, some successful and some unsuccessful, but its basic premise is that the United States Government will not interfere, promote, endorse or otherwise get involved with an individual’s right to worship as they choose, regardless of their religious affiliation or manner of worship, unless the worship somehow causes harm to others. An example of a religious practice that may cause harm to others is when a religion’s dogma states that a person may not receive certain types of medical treatment, but the individual is a child who is unable to make medical decisions for his or herself, or if a religion’s dogma requires involvement in malitia activities that threatens actual harm to government. The freedom is to worship God, but not to cause harm to others in the process.
This column is meant for informational purposes only and not as a substitute for sound legal advice. Direct questions to Ask the Lawyer to firstname.lastname@example.org or via the Facebook page for the Dalhart Texan.