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Review of the US First Amendment

Countries around the world treat religion differently. In some states, especially those in the Middle East and Central Asia, religion plays a central role and is inextricably linked with the states’ governments. In other nations, such as the US, the government and religion are two institutionally separated spheres. This essay discusses the US First Amendment’s clauses (the establishment clause and the free exercise clause) and how they shape the country’s religious laws. The paper argues that both clauses effectively ensure and protect religious freedoms; however, as practice shows, numerous controversies point to some of the flaws of the First Amendment.

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The First Amendment contains two fundamental parts: the establishment and the free exercise clauses. The former ensures separation between state and church (as Thomas Jefferson put it: ‘wall of separation’). (Krotoszynski et al., 2017). It is called the establishment clause because the government cannot establish or represent the interests of a particular church. It limits the government’s ability to control the church and vice versa.

The latter implies that US citizens have the liberty to believe, practice, and change religions. It ensures that every religion is equally respected, and it cannot outlaw them. Moreover, laws that aim at religion have to be banned as they would go against the free exercise clause (Krotoszynski et al., 2017). The two clauses are connected because both provide protection and freedom for the citizens to worship a religion that is appealing to them. Meanwhile, there have been cases in which the clauses contradicted each other.

A recent controversy regarding the ‘wall of separation’ is public funding of religious schools in Montana. The Supreme Court has allowed initiating a tax incentive program that financially supported religious institutions in the state, though indirectly (Strauss, 2020).

This has triggered a heated debate concerning the legality of such a decision. Those who agree with the Court argue that a funding ban would suggest discrimination against the church, whereas the opponents of the decision point out that the line between religion and state blurs because of that. For the critics, The Supreme Court has violated the First Amendment, namely, the establishment clause under which the state must not interfere and promote religious activities and practices. One of the consequences of ignoring the separation is the possibility of utilizing state institutions to encourage the growth of a particular religion (Strauss, 2020). The coercion may lead to the lack of genuine believers and the overall demise of the church’s popularity.

Another controversy connected to the establishment clause was the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia. It was a not-for-profit organization with a license to operate the Learning Center providing daycare for preschool children. The church applied for a grant issued by The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) related to purchasing recycled tires for resurfacing playground (Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, n.d.). Access to the Missouri program was denied, as money from public funds cannot be directed to religious institutions. Trinity began to sue DNR for restricting the freedom of religion (from the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause) and equal rights for citizens (Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment) of various confessions. However, Trinity’s attempt was unsuccessful, as the court denied the allegations.

Despite the fact that Trinity showed that there were cases in which religious organizations obtained similar grants, the US Courts of Appeals annulled the opportunity for reconsideration of the motions. The final decision seemed unjust for numerous observers, who argued that the First Amendment was not meant to block religious institutions from accessing police and fire services, similarly from resources designed for child safety (Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, n.d.).

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The free exercise of religion is another fundamental principle of the US Constitution. One of the most illustrative controversial cases related to this clause is Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. A corporation called Hobby Lobby is owned by members of one family who are Evangelical Christians. Thousands of people work in a company with around 500 stores nationwide (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2021). Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all employers’ medical insurances had to cover their workers’ birth control. However, Hobby Lobby’s owners were religious and refused to pay for contraceptives and other birth control measures.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) principles, the owners applied to the Supreme Court requesting to free Hobby Lobby from ACA-related expenditure. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the company, which was the first time RFRA was used for for-profit organizations (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2021). Critics of the verdict argue for its illegitimacy because, from their viewpoint, it contradicts the First Amendment’s Establishment clause. They point out that the court’s decision could have been interpreted as promoting religious practices (while blurring the border between state and church).

A historical example of Sherbert v. Verner (1963) case demonstrates the importance for courts to utilize the principle of ‘compelling interest’ when considering religiously motivated claims. Adell Sherbert worked on Spartan Mills’ textile plant in South Carolina. In 1959, Sherbert found out that she would need to work on Saturdays (Snow, 2019). Yet, Ms. Shebert was Christian, part of the Seventh Day Adventist’s group, who considers Saturday to be a Sabbath day (holiday). She had to quit the job due to her inability to work on Saturdays. Immediately after that, she filed for unemployment benefits; her request was denied.

After an unsuccessful appeal to the state court, she decided to appeal to the US Supreme Court. After the oral arguments of the two sides, the Court’s judge stated that the state interest in the case was insufficient. Therefore, the court granted the right to unemployment benefits to Ms. Sherbert (Snow, 2019). The case of Sherbert v. Verner allows grasping how disputed issues related to religious matters must be dealt with, in particular, through analyzing if the state has a compelling interest that overweighs the arguments regarding the free exercise of religion. Finally, this case provides an understanding that the meaning of ‘compelling interest’ is vague. It can be interpreted differently, depending on the judge and thus can create disputes.

Overall, the US courts of different levels have utilized the First Amendment to resolve conflicts of Americans. The two clauses are a vital part of the American religious law, as they stipulate the separation of the state and the church and provide ultimate freedom for people to believe and practice their faith. However, the establishment and the free exercise clauses have proved to be controversial and dubious at times. The issues that have been discussed, namely: private schools’ funding, accessing funds for pre-school playground equipment, medical coverage for employees’ contraceptives, unemployment benefits point to the imperfections of the religious laws and their inadequacy to prevent such instances.

Works Cited

Constitutional Rights Foundation (2021) The Free Exercise of Religion in America. Web.

Krotoszynski R. J., Wells C. E., Barnett Lidsky L. C., Corbin C. M. (2017). The First Amendment: cases and theory. Wolters Kluwer.

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Snow R. (2019). Religious freedom: What’s all the freedom about? Covenant Books.

Strauss V. (2020). How the Supreme Court’s decision on religious schools just eroded the separation between church and state. The Washington Post. Web.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. (n.d.). Oyez. Web.

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