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Freedom of Religion Supreme Court Cases

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

Freedom of religion guarantees the right to practice beliefs without government interference. Important Supreme Court cases discuss both the establishment and free exercise clauses. In this lesson, we will learn about freedom of religion in the United States.

Freedom of Religion

There are two parts to the First Amendment that apply to religious beliefs. We call these the establishment clause and free exercise clause. To freely exercise your religion is to practice it as you so desire. To establish a national religion is to declare that any entity of the government (public buildings, elected officials, and even public schools) can or must practice a belief system.

Some countries around the world have an official national religion that shapes government policies or ordains kings and queens or that you are required to participate in as part of citizenship. In the United States, you are free to practice any religion that you choose, and the government is prohibited from naming any church as the official state religion.

Free Exercise

Your religion may ask you not to work on Sundays, or to abstain from eating meat, or to be married within the church in order to have your marriage recognized by the organization. These private beliefs are yours alone, but occasionally, there is some issue with how those rights are protected by the government. Private groups and businesses can sometimes discriminate based on religious beliefs, but the government may not.

One of the landmark cases of free exercise is Sherbert v. Verner (1963). Here, a business chose to begin staying open on Saturdays; Sherbert objected to working on Saturday because it is her religion's holy day of rest. She asked for an exemption to work on other days, but her employer fired her. Because she was fired, she was ineligible for unemployment assistance and the state of South Carolina denied her request for a religious exemption. She sued South Carolina to reclaim her unemployment, arguing that the government benefit (unemployment) should be available to her because she was discriminated against for practicing her religious beliefs. The Supreme Court agreed and upheld her right to receive unemployment benefits. Although her employer, as a private business, has the right to hire and fire, the government must comply with the First Amendment freedom of religion protections.

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