What is Freedom of Religion? - Definition, History & Importance

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  • 0:02 Freedom of Religion
  • 1:27 The Establishment Clause
  • 3:33 The Free Exercise Clause
  • 5:41 Importance
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the freedom of religion. We will take a closer look at the rationale behind the freedom, the specific clauses of the freedom of religion and what it means to society today.

Freedom of Religion

The importance of the freedom of religion began when fervently religious settlers first came over to the U.S. from Europe and created the 13 original British colonies. Nearly all of the early settlers had been persecuted in their home countries for their religions. Thereafter, many other settlers joined from all over the world - some religious and some not.

Many of these individuals were motivated by the need to worship freely in their own way without interference from the state. Out of these concerns arose the importance of the Separation of Church and State Doctrine. This doctrine has been divided into two different clauses: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

These clauses are encompassed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It represents that, 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' In common practice, it is divided into two provisions: the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. Both of these clauses of the First Amendment are applied to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause prohibits the United States government from creating a law that would improperly mingle the church and the state. This law also prevents the government from establishing any laws that would give special favors or punish unfairly one religion over another. Examples of laws that would co-mingle religion and the government would be if the government would delegate to churches the power to veto nearby liquor licenses. This action clearly involves the government delegating power it normally retains (handing out liquor licenses) to a religious organization and tends to favor a religious group.

Can you imagine what kind of power a law like that would give to churches? What would liquor store and bar owners feel compelled to do in order to have a church approve their livelihood? They would feel compelled to belong to a church that is against their own religious beliefs. That is exactly the situation the founders of our Constitution wanted to protect us from.

An example of a law that would be valid would be the IRS giving certain tax breaks to churches. This would not be an example of the government giving preference to one religious group over another because generally tax breaks are given to most charities. Tax breaks are given on a regular basis to churches, the American Red Cross or any approved charity regardless of a religious affiliation. Generally, a law or program that the government creates is found to be acceptable under the Establishment Clause if it has a secular, or non-religious, purpose, if it has a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion and does not produce excessive government entanglement with religion.

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