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Freedom of Religion

Updated on August 15, 2015

Religion and the Constitution

The right granted to all Americans to be free to choose whatever religion that they would like to practice and follow is granted because of the United States Constitution. The Constitution gives Americans many rights, but the main right that Americans have is the right to choose. The right to choose what religion you want to follow, the right to be able to choose to have an abortion and the right to be able to marry who you wish should all be guaranteed to all American citizens. While the Constitution does not grant these rights directly and is open to interpretation, all Americans know that they have the right to choose. The Constitution makes no mention of God, Christianity or any religion for that matter, other than to constrain religious participation in federal government and vice versa. It also states that no religious test shall be required to hold a federal office. The First Amendment specifically says that the federal government should not interfere in any religious matters. "Religious disestablishment created a more conducive environment for what many in the Founding generation valued most of all: the free exercise of religion" (Ivers, 2013). The main points of this paper will be to discuss the federal involvement, the civil rights and the civil liberties connections to the separation of church and state.

The federal government is strictly limited by the Constitution when it comes to being involved in any kind of religious affairs. It also limits religious involvement in governmental affairs. The exact wording is stated in Article VI of the United States Constitution and specifically says; "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" (The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 2014). This means that no person who is applying to obtain a position in the United States Government will be subject to any kind of test that has anything to do with any kind of religion. The courts try to rule in favor of the Constitution when it comes to cases of religion due to the fact that they can get into all kind of trouble if they do not interpret and follow the Constitution as correctly and closely as possible. This can be seen in the case where Jessica Ahlquist petitioned to get a prayer taken off of the wall at her school. The people in Jessica's town took her fight as a stand against religion but her stand was really about the separation of church and state as can be seen in her statement; "The issue for me was never really about religion; it was about the Constitution, and it was about trying to do what I, you know, what I interpreted the Constitution to be saying about religious freedom" (Buchanan, 2013). Unfortunately for Jessica she was ridiculed and dealt with a lot from her fellow students and members of her town due to her political beliefs. Like Jessica said, her standpoint was political and not religious as it was questioning whether or not the prayer infringed upon the right to freedom of religion. This confusion between religion and the rights of the Constitution is the reason that the federal government stays out of religion as much as they can, which can be hard because they are facing suits from atheists to remove the words "under God" from the pledge of allegiance; "For the second time in a year, American atheists and humanists are asking a state court to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, saying daily requirements to recite the phrase in public schools discriminates against atheist children (Bruinius, 2014). The atheists have the logical standpoint on the issue, as it is more of a political issue then it will ever be an actual religious issue. There has even been teachers being put on trial for forcing children to recite the Pledge; "Anne Daigle-McDonald - a fourth-grade teacher at Explorer K-8 School in Spring Hill, Florida – allegedly forced a boy in her class to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance" (Paulson, 2013). No teacher has a right to make a child do anything at all, especially if it interferes with their religious beliefs. The teacher could have always made the children recite the pledge minus the 'under God' part, but instead she forced them to recite the whole thing. It is very obvious that saying 'one Nation, under God' could offend a child if they did not believe in the Christian/Catholic view of God. If even one American is offended by the words that are used in the American Pledge of Allegiance then they should not have to recite it, and if they do not have to recite the pledge then where does their fealty really lie? That is why when it comes to these kinds of cases the federal government has to get involved to ensure that everyone's religious freedoms are being properly protected.

The rules in the Constitution are put into place so that the federal government cannot come up with one centralized religion that every person has to follow. This keeps the United States a country where religion can remain free and everyone can be free of religious persecution of any kind. This means that everyone has their own right to choose whatever it is that they choose to believe in and that no body of the American Government has the right to change any of that. Atheists have continuously opened up federal cases under the pretense that their First Amendment Rights had been violated by forcing students to say the Pledge of Allegiance. They have since changed their positioning, and since there are so few atheists, they are claiming minority status; "atheists are claiming minority status and basing their arguments on guarantees of equal protection under the law" (Bruinius, 2014). Basically atheists are saying that their rights of equal protection are being violated, which is why the majority of schools no longer make children recite the Pledge, and the words "under God" look as though they will soon be removed completely. By claiming that they are a minority group there are certain laws and rights that they have as a minority, which means that they are going to be stating that it is discriminatory to make their children recite the pledge. Religious freedom is the main goal of the First Amendment and Article VI of the Constitution, and is a human right. "For Thomas Jefferson, the new republic must be founded with religious freedom. And that, he believed, was a God-given right. One thing he says is that God created us in such a way that we can make our religious choices. Who is the state to tell us something that God chose not to tell us" (Mellows & Belton, 2010)? Thomas Jefferson is correct in saying that God chose not to tell us which religion to follow, but in reality, that should not matter because church and state are supposed to be separated. Even so, the fact that God allows people freedom of choice to follow their own path should mean that no man can tell another man what religion they have to choose to follow or what God they have to believe in. The next issue that is most likely going to be the topic of the religious debate, once the words 'one Nation, under God' are removed from the Pledge, will probably be American money as it states 'In God we Trust'. Another topic on the table for debate that strongly revolves around religious freedom is Gay marriage.

Gay marriage is a civil liberty that should not be being denied to any American person as all Americans should have the right to marry anyone that they choose. A lot of states are allowing Gay marriage stating that laws against same sex marriage are unconstitutional, which in all reality they are. One of the main arguments against same sex marriage has always been on the verge of being unconstitutional itself, as it does not follow the separation of church and state by stating that God meant for marriage to be between a man and a woman. If church and state are supposed to be separated then there should be no religious argument that a man should not be free to marry another man, or that a woman should not be free to marry another woman. Religion does not matter when it comes to state and federal issues, or rather it should not. The court should not even be taking the argument serious as it states that 'God meant for man to lie with woman and woman to lie with man'. This is a direct violation of the separation of church and state and it is highly unconstitutional to deny homosexuals the right to marry each other based on this particular argument. Another civil liberty that is under fire from religious people is abortion. It has already been ruled in a court decision that it would be unconstitutional to put certain restrictions on abortion as women have a right private right to choose what they want to do with their body. "The most fervent supporters of abortion rights would have you believe the Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade. In fact, every high court decision since then has backed a woman's legal right to abortion" (ABC News, 2003). In other words, the courts are not taking religion into account in the debate at all. The courts are correct in keeping religious views out of the abortion debate due to separation of church and state laws in the Constitution. One thing that religious people should understand is that if they have a right to choose whatever religion that they wish to choose according to the Constitution, then women should be able to choose what they want to do with their bodies and people of the same sex should be allowed to marry if they so choose. A third civil liberty that is closely related to freedom of religion that has come in to question in regards to the Constitution is the freedom of speech. There was a case where a church group protested at a young soldiers funeral where the church group won, even though they were saying terrible things and harassing the family of the deceased. The government had to rule in favor of the church, even though they were saying making religious statements in regards to homosexuals and soldiers, because they had a right to freedom of speech and religion. While protesting at ones funeral is a loathsome and degrading act, everyone has the right to do it. It is shocking to know that a church group would protest at such a religious ceremony, but this is where freedom of religion really comes into play. The church group won their case because, not only did they have a right to say whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, but due to freedom of religion, they also had the right to take whatever religious standpoint they wanted on the issue. All of these civil liberties fall under the same idea in the Constitution, privacy rights. A woman's right to choose, a religious persons right to choose, a gay persons right to choose and a protestors right to choose all are protected under different privacy rights in the Constitution, but they are protected under privacy rights.

One major case that set a lot of precedents for the separation of church and state was the John T. Scopes trial, which was about a teacher that taught the Theory of Evolution to a class and got into major trouble for it.

[The Scopes trial, of course, is one of the best known in American history, bringing together two larger-than-life personalities in William Jennings Bryan (who died two weeks after the trial ended) and Clarence Darrow, who continued his career as America's most famous civil liberties lawyer until his death in 1938. It produced an atmosphere that resembled a carnival rather than a sober inquiry into law and justice. John Scopes probably had no idea that the combustible mix of issues involved in his case—religious establishment, free speech, and religious free exercise—would soon find a permanent place on the docket of the United States Supreme Court] (Ivers, 2013).

The reason that Scopes got into so much trouble for teaching Evolution is because religious people were offended that their children were being taught another way that the World could have been created. The problem with this trial and the problem with Scopes being found guilty is that he was found guilty while religion was a factor. Church and state are supposed to remain separated according to the American Constitution, so Scopes should have never been on trial in the first place. Evolution is not a religious Theory, it is a scientific theory, which means religion should have never come into the case at all. Everything about the case was based on religion and religious views, none of which should have ever come into play. Because students were being taught something that was not a part of Christian belief, Scopes was placed on trial. According to freedom of speech and freedom of religion Scopes should have never been found guilty. When church and state do not remain separate, people get into trouble that do not have any reason to be.

The federal government does everything possible to stay out of religious affairs and to protect every individual's right to religious freedom. The Constitution makes no mention of God, Christianity or any religion for that matter, other than to constrain religious participation in federal government and vice versa. The American right of freedom of religion is protected because church and state will continue to be separate and the Constitution ensures every person's right to choose.

The Constitution



ABC News. (2003). The abortion war: Thirty years after Roe v. Wade [Video file]. Retrieved from the Films On Demand database.

Bruinius, H. (2014). Atheists' new plan of attack against Pledge of Allegiance: state courts. The Christian Science Monitor.

Buchanan, C. (Producer). (2013, May 14). Episode II - It’s a free country [Series episode]. In P. Sagal (Executive producer), Constitution USA with Peter Sagal. Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved from

Ivers, G. (2013). Constitutional law: An introduction. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

Mellows, M. (Producer), & Belton, D. (Director) (2010). A new Eden [Series episode]. In M. Sullivan (Executive producer), God in America: How religious liberty shaped America. Boston, MA: WGBH. Retrieved from the Films On Demand database.

Paulson, S. (2014). Pledge of Allegiance: Teacher suspended for forcing student to say the Pledge. Chicago Top News Examiner. Retrieved from Newsbank.

The US National Archives and Records Administration. (2014). Constitution of the united states. Retrieved from

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