Constitution 101: Freedom of Religion

The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty leads to thorny questions. Can school teachers lead the class in prayer? Can the government require religious organizations to violate their own beliefs? Find out in Part 4 of Legal Lad’s series on the U.S. Constitution.      

Adam Freedman
October 5, 2012

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Constitution 101: Freedom of Religion

Today’s Topic: Constitution 101 – Freedom of Religion

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Constitution 101

This is the fourth installment of a new series on the U.S. Constitution. In our first three episodes, we discussed the basic framework that the Constitution establishes for the federal government. 

In this episode we start reviewing the Bill of Rights. For more on the Constitution, you can check out my new book, The Naked Constitution: What the Founders Said, and Why it Matters.


The First Amendment

The first ten amendments – or Bill of Rights – were ratified in 1791, just two years after the Constitution itself. The First Amendment covers freedom of religion, as well as freedom speech and the press, which we’ll discuss in the next episode. The amendment starts off as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .”

Note that the amendment applies only to Congress -- "congress shall make no law, etc." it doesnt say anything about the states. In fact, the entire Bill of Rights was originally drafted as a series of restrictions on the power of the federal government. It was only in the twentieth century that the Supreme Court began to apply the Bill of Rights to the states using the so-called incorporation doctrine, which we'll address in a later episode.

The First Amendment contains two distinct clauses dealing with religious liberty: they are known as the “Establishment Clause” and the “Free Exercise Clause.” I’ll summarize each of them in turn.