To many Europeans came to the new world looking

believe in God, or not to believe in God is a right given to Americans. The
freedom to choose whether or not to worship is one of the backbones of what
makes up the United States. In early colonial days, many Europeans came to the
new world looking for a place where they would have religious freedom. The
framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure that the common core values,
including religious beliefs, of the people,
were not hindered. To better understand what religious freedom means in America
we have to look at how the separation of church and state came about, what the
Constitution says about religious freedom, and how the Supreme Court has
interpreted religious freedom.

founding fathers included an individual’s basic liberties in the Bill of
Rights. In order to seek religious freedom, early colonist left England due to
the establishment of government composed religious services. Before the Revolution
colonies already had “established churches” where individuals had to pay taxes
and were required to regularly attend. After the Revolution criticism about
this type of religious practice came under attack. James Madison and Thomas
Jefferson “insisted that a “wall of separation” between church and state was
necessary to guarantee individual religious freedom” (Hall pg. 451). The
framework for religion established by the First Amendment of the Constitution made
it possible for individuals to worship in their own way. The First Amendment
states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (Hall pg. 565). The First Amendment to the Constitution has two clauses that
address the freedom of religion; the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment
Clause. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from establishing an
official religion and from favoring one religion over another. The
Establishment Clause was added to the Constitution by the founding fathers to
keep the federal government from supporting and declaring a national religion. The
Free Exercise Clause was also added to protect an individual’s right to practice
their religious beliefs, as long as it doesn’t impede the government’s interests or public’s morals.

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very first case to go to the Supreme Court involving religious freedom and the Free
Exercise Clause takes place in 1878 with Reynolds v. United States. This was
the first significant Supreme Court case where a citizen brought a
constitutional claim before the Court. George Reynolds wanted to be exempt from
a criminal law based on his fundamental right to engage in the free exercise of
religion. Federal law prohibits having more than one spouse at a time, yet Reynolds
violated this law by being married to two wives at the same time. Reynolds
believed that the federal law was a violation of his First Amendment to
religious freedom. “The Court ruled unanimously that a law banning polygamy was
constitutional, and did not infringe upon individuals’ First Amendment right to
free exercise of religion” ( An individual’s
personal religious beliefs cannot exempt them from complying with the general social
needs of society, especially when it comes to marriage. By allowing polygamy to
be practiced, that would give the principles of religion a supremacy to the
“law of the land” and not the Constitution. The Court could not justify
polygamy knowing that the possibility of human sacrifice could come up based on
the same grounds of justification for the first amendment. The Courts decision
limited the broadness of freedom of religion interpretations which could be
used as a means to overshadow the Constitution. Marriage is considered the most
important factor of social life. Even though it is done in private, it is still
a social contract and needs to be regulated.

the Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman it sets forth the
three-part test about what would constitute an establishment of religion. The
issue at hand is whether or not it’s constitutional for a state to provide
financial assistance to religious schools. Alton Lemon believed that a
Pennsylvania law violated the First Amendment of Constitution with the Non-public
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968 ( The
Constitution prohibits the establishment of church and state by unfairly
funding religious programs that did not appeal to the general population of
that state. The Court had an 8-0 majority ruling against the Pennsylvania law.
The Court believed that passing of any state laws that try to establish a
religious body is considered a direct violation of the Establishment Clause.  Justice Douglas wrote the concurring opinion
that grants from the government to non-public schools created an entanglement
that was prohibited by the Establishment Clause ( To
determine whether a state statute has violated the Establishment Clause, the
Courts applied a three-pronged test known as the Lemon Test. Under the Lemon Test,
the government can assist in religion only if “(1) the primary purpose of the
assistance is secular, (2) the assistance must neither promote nor inhibit
religion, and (3) there is no excessive entanglement between church and state”
( This test is used to determine whether or not state laws have
violated the Constitution by the funding or creating religious institutions
with public money. The Lemon test prohibits the federal government form being
too involved in one particular religious institution and to ensure the general interest
of the public.

Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale
deals with how the Establishment Clause applies to religion in schools. The
issue at hand is whether or not the Establishment Clause is violated by school-sponsored
prayers in public schools. “The Court ruled that New York’s practice of
beginning school days with a prayer drafted by school officials violated the
Establishment Clause” ( The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that
voluntary prayer in public schools violated the U.S. Constitution’s First
Amendment prohibition of a state establishment of religion. The Court ruled 8-1
with the majority reasoning that requiring daily prayers constituted as a government
regulated religious program. The concurrence in the case came from Justice
Douglas who took a broad view that any public promotion of religion violated
the Establishment Clause. Justice Stewart argued the dissent stating that “the
Establishment Clause was not meant to prohibit all types of government
involvement only to prohibit the establishment of a state-sponsored church
( The practice of establishing governmentally composed
prayer was one of the many reasons the early colonists left England to seek
religious freedom (Hall pg. 454). This case showed how the Establishment Clause
was interpreted by the Supreme Court. This case outlines
the limitations that the Establishment Clause placed on the government and the

three cases listed above have all contributed to how the First Amendment, in terms
of freedom of religion, has been interpreted. Reynolds v. United States is still
significant today in that it set the precedent for
free exercise of religion. This decision has helped to distinguish between which
religious actions are protected under the Constitution. Lemon v. Kurtzman is still relevant today in that it led to the
creation of the Lemon Test. This test is used to see if the public money that is used to fund religious
institutions violates the Constitution. It also prohibits the Federal
government from becoming too involved in any one religious institution. Engel v. Vitale helped to set a
precedent for the separation of church and state by restricting prayer in
schools. This case has used the Establishment Clause to eliminate religious
activities from public ceremonies. This case set the foundation for the
separation of church and state that is still used today.

of religion is considered to be a political principle that strives to put a
limitation on the government’s involvement in an individual’s personal
religious beliefs. This is a broad and personal area that affects everyone in
the United States. “The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand
as a guarantee that neither the power or
prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or
influence the kinds of prayers the
American people can say” (Hall pg. 454). Whether you have a specific religious
belief or not, you benefit from the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise
Clause of the First Amendment. The First Amendment is often used to keep
religion out of government spaces such as public schools, libraries, and
courtrooms. Some people are wanting to take the “separation of church and
state” even further by advocating for the removal of the words “in God we
trust” from the US currency. If the First Amendment grants such basic freedoms,
why is there so much government limitations on them? Freedom of religion might
not really be as free as people might think it is. An individual has limited freedom of religion that is still
controlled and regulated by the government.