Posted: November 20, 2012 in America, Truths of the US Constitution


In the first Amendment, religion
Free Exercise Clause refers to the section of the First Amendment italicized here:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

The Free Exercise Clause reserves the right of American citizens to accept any religious belief and engage in religious rituals. The wording in the free-exercise clauses of state constitutions that religious “[o]pinion, expression of opinion, and practice were all expressly protected” by the Free Exercise Clause.[1] The clause protects not just religious beliefs but actions made on behalf of those beliefs. More importantly, the wording of state constitutions suggest that “free exercise envisions religiously compelled exemptions from at least some generally applicable laws.”[2] The Free Exercise Clause not only protects religious belief and expression; it also seems to allow for violation of laws, as long as that violation is made for religious reasons. In the terms of economc theory, the Free Exercise Clause promotes a free religious market by precluding taxation of religious activities by minority sects.[3]

Constitutional scholars and even Supreme Court opinions have contended that the two religion clauses are in conflict. E.g., Thomas v. Review Board, 450 U.S. 707 (1981). As mentioned previously, the Free Exercise Clause implies special accommodation of religious ideas and actions, even to the point of exemptions to generally applicable laws. Such a special benefit seems to violate the neutrality between “religion and non-religion” mandated by the Establishment Clause. McConnell explains:

If there is a constitutional requirement for accommodation of religious conduct, it will most likely be found in the Free Exercise Clause. Some say, though, that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause for the government to give any special benefit or recognition of religion. In that case, we have a First Amendment in conflict with itself—the Establishment Clause forbidding what the Free Exercise Clause requires.[4]

Historically, the Supreme Court has been inconsistent in dealing with this problem. When the Court leans toward more accommodation for the Free Exercise Clause, there is greater conflict.

When the Amendment was drafted, it applied only to the U.S. Congress; state and local governments could abridge the free exercise of religion as long as there was no similar provision in the state constitution. In 1940, the Supreme Court held in Cantwell v. Connecticut that, due to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Free Exercise Clause is enforceable against state and local governments.

[1] Michael McConnell, Religion and the Constitution (2002), pg. 105.
[2] Id. at 107.
[3] Richard Posner and Michael McConnell, “An Economic Approach to Issues of Religious Freedom,” 56 University of Chicago Law Review 1 (1989).
[4] McConnell, note 1 above, at 102.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. See U.S. Const. amend. I. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments. See U.S. Const. amend. XIV.

Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the “separation of church and state.” Some governmental activity related to religion has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. For example, providing bus transportation for parochial school students and the enforcement of “blue laws” is not prohibited. The free exercise clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a person’s practice of their religion.

The most basic component of freedom of expression is the right of freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without interference or constraint by the government. The Supreme Court requires the government to provide substantial justification for the interference with the right of free speech where it attempts to regulate the content of the speech. A less stringent test is applied for content-neutral legislation. The Supreme Court has also recognized that the government may prohibit some speech that may cause a breach of the peace or cause violence. For more on unprotected and less protected categories of speech see advocacy of illegal actionfighting wordscommercial speech and obscenity. The right to free speech includes other mediums of expression that communicate a message.  The level of protection speech receives also depends on the forum in which it takes place.

Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general.

The right to assemble allows people to gather for peaceful and lawful purposes. Implicit within this right is the right to association and belief. The Supreme Court has expressly recognized that a right to freedom of association and belief is implicit in the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. This implicit right is limited to the right to associate for First Amendment purposes. It does not include a right of social association. The government may prohibit people from knowingly associating in groups that engage and promote illegal activities. The right to associate also prohibits the government from requiring a group to register or disclose its members or from denying government benefits on the basis of an individual’s current or past membership in a particular group. There are exceptions to this rule where the Court finds that governmental interests in disclosure/registration outweigh interference with first amendment rights. The government may also, generally, not compel individuals to express themselves, hold certain beliefs, or belong to particular associations or groups.

The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances guarantees people the right to ask the government to provide relief for a wrong through the courts (litigation) or other governmental action. It works with the right of assembly by allowing people to join together and seek change from the government.


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