The United States of America has a proud history as the land of the free. One of the fundamental values is the freedom of religion, which the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees. However, this freedom can be a contentious issue, as it can clash with other legal principles such as civil rights and public safety. In this essay, we will explore the limits of freedom of religion in the U.S. legal system.
The most well-known limit to religious freedom is the prohibition against human sacrifice, which is found in many religious texts. However, not all religious practices are so obviously dangerous. In the case of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting the use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, could be enforced even if it was used as part of a religious ceremony. The court held that the free exercise of religion could not be used to violate neutral laws that concerned the public health and safety.
Another limit to religious freedom is when it conflicts with civil rights. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing his religious beliefs. The court ruled in favor of the baker, but it was a narrow decision that did not answer the broader question of whether religious freedom can be used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
The Supreme Court has also recognized that schools have a legitimate interest in maintaining a secular learning environment. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the court struck down a Louisiana law that mandated teaching “creation science” alongside evolution in public schools. The court held that the law was unconstitutional because it had no secular purpose and advanced a particular religious viewpoint.
Finally, religious freedom can also be limited when it is used to avoid compliance with generally applicable laws. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), a corporation objected to providing insurance coverage for certain contraceptives because of the owners’ religious beliefs. The court ruled that Hobby Lobby was entitled to an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, but it was a controversial decision that opened the door for other businesses to claim religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.
In conclusion, the freedom of religion is a valued right in the United States, but it is not absolute. There are limits to how much people can practice their religion when it conflicts with other values such as public safety, civil rights, or secular education. These limits are not always clear-cut and can lead to difficult legal debates. It is up to lawmakers, judges, and citizens to balance the various interests at stake and ensure that religious freedom is appropriately balanced with other rights and values.