The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment

First Amendment

What does freedom of religion mean?

There are two clauses of the First Amendment dealing with religious freedom: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”—means that there should be separation between church and state. Judges, scholars, politicians, and everybody else disagree over how much separation there should be between church and state. The Establishment Clause has led to interesting and controversial decisions impacting school-sponsored prayer in public schools, display of Ten Commandments monuments, and the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Free Exercise Clause provides that the government cannot infringe upon a person’s religious beliefs. People have the right to believe in whatever religious faith they wish or they have the right to believe in no religion at all. The controversies over the Free Exercise Clause arise when the government prohibits religious-based actions or conduct that people claim violate their religious faith. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States (1878) that the government could prohibit George Reynolds from practicing polygamy even though that was a part of his religious faith.


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