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February 01, 2022

Religious Freedom

Video: Respecting Other Religions

Religious Freedom Committee Vice-Chair Rahmah answers "Does freedom of religion require respect for other religions?, in the above video. In addition, the written script is below.

Q: Does freedom of religion require respect for other religions? Amina from Washington, D.C.

A: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the government cannot endorse or denigrate religion and neither can it deprive any individual of their right to religious freedom .

What do we mean by the right to religious freedom? Under the U.S. Constitution, religious freedom is the right for everyone to practice his or her religion, or to choose not to practice a religion at all.

By giving everyone the right to practice or not to practice a religion, the Constitution preserves this liberty and requires that all religions, and the beliefs of those who do not subscribe to a religion, be respected.

In order to ensure that there is government respects all religions and favors none, the First Amendment also, through the Establishment Clause, prohibits government endorsement or denigration of religion . By doing so, the founders of the Constitution intended to keep the government away from influencing people’s choices about religion.

The founders have created both the Establishment Clause as well as the Free Exercise Clause within the First Amendment to ensure that this liberty is preserved and respected. Taken together, these clauses encompass the often-cited principle of separation of church and state.

The Establishment Clause, in short, prohibits the government from playing favorites based on what people do or don’t believe.”

Here’s an example that puts the Establishment Clause into practice:

Ex) The United States is prohibited from establishing Christianity as the official religion of the country.

The Free Exercise Clause gives everyone the right to choose to worship or not. Here’s an example that puts the Free Exercise Clause into practice:

Ex) If reciting the Pledge of Allegiance goes against a student's religious beliefs, a public school teacher cannot coerce or pressure the student into reciting it.

Here are some more practical examples of how Freedom of Religion requires respect for other religions:

  • Public schools are run by the government and therefore, they cannot promote one religion over another. They can teach history and literature that is influenced by religion as a part of their curriculum, but they cannot focus on just one religion in a way that promotes it.
  • Students may be excused from certain school activities if those activities conflict with their personal religious beliefs. For example, students have the right to be excused from singing religious Christmas songs in the choir.
  • Students for the most part have the right to wear religious garb and accessories in school, such as a hijab or yarmulke.

Video: Religious Expression and the Law

Religious Freedom Committee Vice-Chair Rahmah answers "What religious expression is protected by law?", in the above video. In addition, the written script is below.

Q: What religious expression is protected by law? Amina from Washington, D.C.

A: The First Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans’ right to religious freedom through two provisions: the Establishment of Religion clause and the Free-Exercise clause.

This first Clause basically prevents the government from preferring a particular house of worship or religion or proclaiming a particular religion to be the “official” religion. It also prevents the government from legally declaring any religion to be false, even if the majority of people don’t believe in it.

The second Clause constitutionally protect the ability of individuals, including as part of a religious community, to exercise their own religious practices in a fashion that is consistent with the rights of others. (There is a lot of debate as to where that line should be drawn!) .

So what is religion, then? Courts have generally considered a lot of things to count as religion.  In fact, religious beliefs are protected even when they don’t match up to the rules or ideas expressed by a rules or ideas expressed by the leaders of a particular religion. This means you don’t even technically have to belong to an organized religious group to receive protection for your religious beliefs!

Beliefs are considered religious, and therefore protected by the First Amendment as long as they play “the role of a religion and function as a religion” in your life. That means you don’t even actually have to believe in a God or a higher power in order to classify your own actions as religious.

So if religion can be super broadly defined sometimes, you can probably understand why it can get a little bit hazy in court cases. This is because the only real way to figure out if some sort of action is protected is for a judge or jury to decide whether the individual was acting under “sincerely held beliefs.”

But NOW judging whether another person’s beliefs are sincere or not can be kind of tricky. Even so, saying that a belief is religious in nature when it is not, especially if used as a justification for, say, stealing, is a good way to get into trouble.

For example, if members of a religion are accused of misusing money they collected for their religion in exchange for claiming that handling snakes will cure their ills,  it may that they will not legally be convicted even if handling snakes does no such thing—as long as they  – if they sincerely believed the claims they were making and as long as the money actually went to the church as promised.

So, how does this affect you? Bearing in mind that we are talking here about public schools and other government officials (since the First Amendment only protects against government action), here  are some kinds of sincerely held beliefs and activities that may be protected:

  • · You may be entitled to take a break from class in order to not miss your designated prayer time
  • · You can pray publicly at lunch or between classes (that is, at a time when doing so will not be disruptive)  and you’re protected from a school official who might interrupt your prayer.
  • · In the future, if you lose  your job because your employer is  forcing you to work on your religious holiday you are still eligible to collect unemployment benefits, even though ordinarily you can’t collect such benefits if you lose your job because you refused to work on a day designated by your employer Heads up: don’t think that the government will make up for your whole old salary though-- unemployment benefits for people looking for jobs aren't very big.
  • You are free to operate a church dedicated to worshipping the Roman pantheon without any interference from the government, even if your beliefs are shared by just a handful of other people. And you're free to use public property to wave signs and hand out leaflets and otherwise promote your polytheistic beliefs. (But you should probably do that ONLY if you’re confident that if you were put to the test, a jury would decide that you are a sincere and true believer.)

Here are some resources you can check out to further your understanding of Religious Freedom under the United States Constitution:

· Read the First Amendment in full!

· Know your Rights! - Religious Freedom

· Here are some famous Supreme Court Cases that discuss Religious Freedom!

· A little bit of a deeper read on how the First Amendment guarantees you freedom of religion: