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Freedom of Religion: Definition, Amendment & Rights

Instructor: Dustin Parrett
In this lesson we explore the freedom of religion. We uncover what it means, where it is found in the First Amendment, and what rights this gives us today.

Definition

Imagine living in a country where going to church on Sunday is considered a crime. Or, imagine this: Not going to church is a crime and the only church you can go to is the official church of the government. This probably sounds crazy because these scenarios would never happen here. And they don't happen here because of the freedom of religion .

The freedom of religion means that you may practice any religion you choose and that the government may not force you to participate in a religion. This means that the government can't stop you from going to whichever church you may want to go to, but it can't create an official religion, either. In fact, the government is supposed to avoid religious matters all together.

The freedom of religion is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The First Amendment says 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…' Even though it sounds simple and straightforward, there has been a lot of debate over it.

The text of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The text of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

History

The freedom of religion was important enough to be included in the Constitution, but why was this an issue in the first place?

It used to be common for countries to have official religions. Members of the government had to be part of the official church. Laws that affected these countries were often designed by the church. People who belonged to a different religion or disagreed with the official religion could be persecuted.

In fact, many people moved to the American colonies because of this religious persecution. They had lived in countries that had an official religion, and they wanted to practice a different one. When the American government was formed, many people were worried that the government would have an official religion just like the others.

Others feared that an official religion could lead to tyranny, like they saw in other countries. They didn't want a church to be creating laws; they wanted the citizens to do that. To keep this from happening, the First Amendment included the freedom of religion and allowed people to practice their religions freely.

The Establishment Clause

The part of the First Amendment that says 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion' is known as the Establishment Clause. The meaning of the Establishment Clause has been a source of debate throughout American history. Many believe it upholds the idea of the separation of church and state: that the government should stay completely out of religious business.

Others have felt that the Establishment Clause simply keeps the government from creating an official religion, but that the government can still be involved in religious activities. A popular debate concerning the Establishment Clause involves signs containing religious scripture on government buildings. For example, does posting the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

These debates are still going on. However, a few things are clear. The government can't have an official religion and the government can't favor one religion over another.

The Free Exercise Clause

The part of the First Amendment that says 'or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' is commonly referred to as the Free Exercise Clause. This sounds pretty simple, right? The government can't stop you from practicing your religion.

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