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The Free Exercise Of Religion

During the time of the colonies, many colonials left England to pursue religious freedom in the present–day United States. The founding of the United States brought various freedoms to those who are citizens within its bounds. Of those freedoms, arguably the most important stems from the First Amendment of the Constitution. Many individuals understand that the First Amendment awards the freedoms of speech, press, and to peacefully assemble. U.S. CONST. amend. I. However, the First Amendment also reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” Id. The United States decided to go to war with England to separate itself from tyranny, but it must be understood that many settlers left England primarily to escape religious persecution. 

One of the oldest cases presented to the Supreme Court regarding the free exercise of religion is Reynolds v. United States. This case provides the scope of the relationship between Government interference regarding religion and how specific notions of a particular religion may run afoul with the law. The plaintiff is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–Day Saints, which dictates that male members of the church are to practice polygamy. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 161, 25 L. Ed. 244, 249 (1878). Polygamy is when an individual is in more than one marriage. Polygamy is outlawed in every state, but the case presented related to polygamy that is in relation to the practice of one’s religion. 

The Court first stated that Congress may not pass a law that prohibits the free exercise of an individual’s religion. Id. Further, the Court establishes that religious freedom must be without congressional interference. Id. However, this issue relates to the inability to practice religious freedom based upon the illegality of the act by the individual. Common law dictates that a second marriage is void. Id. at 250. Because of this, the Court illustrates how marriage is not only a “sacred obligation,” but primarily a “civil contract” that is regulated. Id. This analysis places the spirit of the Constitution at odds with the rule of law in the United States.

The Court ultimately held that plural marriages will not be allowed because allowing a religious belief such as this would make religious doctrine “superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” Id. The Court reasoned that although laws that are made for the government cannot interfere with religious beliefs or opinions, they are allowed to interfere with particular religious practices. Id. This means that the government may not prohibit specific ideologies of an individual, but if the practices run afoul with the law, the government is within its rights to not allow the practice to occur. An example of this would be if a religion required child sacrifice, which would clearly violate federal and state laws. Therefore, the government may have some control over a religious practice only if it violates the law.

The Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment is meant to prohibit government interference with religious beliefs. The government may not prohibit an individual from practicing a certain religion. However, the government may prohibit a specific practice of the religion, or a specific action that a religion requires, only if it violates the law. Reynolds shows that a clear violation of the law will allow the government to have some ability to regulate the practice. If the issue in Reynolds dealt with the practice of the Mormon religion, rather than a concept of the Mormon religion, the government would be completely barred from prohibiting the plaintiff from practicing the religion. Thus, there is a certain constraint that religious practitioners must abide by, but that constraint lies only with an action of the religion instead of the religion as a whole.

Thanks to a personal injury lawyer with our friends at Eglet Adams for their insight on the free exercise of religion in the United States. If you have been injured and feel that your religious beliefs are being discriminated against so that you are not receiving the settlement you deserve, contact a lawyer near you for help.