Religious Liberty: Free Exercise Clause

Reynolds v. United States (1879)

A federal law banning polygamy was upheld. The Free Exercise Clause forbids government from regulating belief, but does allow government to regulate actions such as marriage. Read More.

Minersville v. Gobitas (1940)

The Court upheld a Pennsylvania flag-salute law, because “religious liberty must give way to political authority.” This was reversed in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943). Read More.

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)

States could not require special permits for religious solicitation when permits were not required for non-religious solicitation. The Court began applying the Free Exercise Clause to the states and recognized an absolute freedom of belief. Read More.

Braunfeld v. Brown (1961)

The Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring stores to be closed on Sundays, even though Orthodox Jews claimed the law unduly burdened them since their religion required them to close their stores on Saturdays as well. The Court held that the law did not target Jews specifically as a group.

Sherbert v. Verner (1963)

The Court ruled that states could not deny unemployment benefits to a person for turning down a job because it required him/her to work on the Sabbath. Requiring a person to abandon their religious convictions in order to receive benefits was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

The Court ruled that Amish adolescents could be exempt from a state law requiring school attendance for all 14- to 16-year-olds, since their religion required living apart from the world and worldly influence. The state’s interest in students’ attending 2 more years of school was not enough to outweigh the individual right to free exercise. Read More.

McDaniel v. Paty (1978)

A Tennessee law barring members of the clergy from public office was overturned because it directly targeted people because of their religious profession.

Thornton v. Caldor (1985)

Private companies are free to fire people who refuse to work on any day they claim is their Sabbath, because the First Amendment applies only to government, not to private employers.

Goldman v. Weinberger (1986)

Air Force penalties against a Jewish chaplain who wore a yarmulke (skull cap) on duty in defiance of regulations were upheld. The military’s interest in uniformity outweighed the individual right to free exercise.

Employment Division v. Smith (1990)

Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to someone fired from a job for illegally smoking peyote during a religious ceremony. The Free Exercise Clause does not excuse people from obeying the law.

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)

Laws passed by 4 Florida cities banning animal sacrifice were targeted at the Santeria religion, which employs animal sacrifice in prayer, and therefore the laws were unconstitutional.

Locke v. Davey (2004)

States could refuse to award scholarship funds to college students pursuing divinity degrees in preparation for the ministry. The denial of government funding for religious instruction was not a violation of free exercise. Read More.

Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (2006)

The courts ruled unanimously in favor of a small religious group who had argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 required that they be free to use hoasca—an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act—for religious purposes. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Court had to review individual religious freedom claims and grant exceptions to generally-applicable laws.

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010)

The court ruled that a student organization at a public university was not free to limit their members to those who shared their belief system if that resulted in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.