Religious Freedom

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “[…] religious freedom is the right to believe or not believe as one’s conscience leads, and live out one’s beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear.” During the early formation of the U.S. Federal Government, the need to enshrine such a right into the constitution was apparent to many of the Framers due to the commonplace practice among colonial governments of persecuting members of any religious sect besides the sect associated with the government. They responded to this need with the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

Today Freedom of Religion is understood to encompass two broad principles: the principle that all people should be able to independently choose their religious beliefs and practices, and the principle that the law should treat people of different religious beliefs equally. The tension between these principles, the practicalities of running a government, and the rise of powerful religious lobbying groups has produced many of modern questions about Religious Freedom in the US.

For example, one rule the US had for implementing religious freedom before 1990 was to be lenient towards minority religious practices which do not impede a compelling government interest in the application of the law. Having such a rule can give people with minority religions protections that are afforded to majority religious practices by default, but it also makes enforcing laws more difficult for the government. This rule was overturned by Employment Division v. Smith, which established a new understanding that Religious Freedom only protects people from laws directly targeting that their religion and not laws which incidentally impact that religion.

The rules established under Employment Division v. Smith now seem to be changing, with the Supreme Court granting new unspecified rights relating to religious freedom (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission). Worryingly, the Supreme Court seems to be granting these new rights only to people with certain religious views (State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers) while denying the new rights and even old Religious Freedom rights to people with other religious views (Trump v. Hawaii, Dunn v. Ray).

How do we trade off the desire to permit a broad range of religious practices with the desire to create and enforce laws (such as those governing the use of peyote or alcohol) that impact religious practices in a way that is fair to everybody? Is there a value to protecting the ability to perform religious practices in addition to protecting the Freedom of Belief? How do we ensure that a government made up of people with specific religious beliefs acts in a way that protect everyone’s Freedom of Religion?