J. Reuben Clark Law Society
Editing Content
Revert to History:

Become Educated



"It is important for us to become well educated on this issue and assume responsibility for ensuring that the religious freedom we have inherited is passed on to future generations."

Elder Quentin L. Cook

What is Religious Freedom?

The free "exercise" of religion obviously involves both (1) the right to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and (2) the right to "exercise" or practice those beliefs without government restraint. However, in a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs the right of some to act upon their religious beliefs must be qualified by the government's responsibility to further compelling government interests, such as the health and safety of all. Otherwise, for example, the government could not protect its citizens' persons or properties from neighbors whose religious principles compelled practices that threatened others' health or personal security. Government authorities have wrestled with this tension for many years, so we have considerable experience in working out the necessary accommodations.

The inherent conflict between the precious religious freedom of the people and the legitimate regulatory responsibilities of the government is the central issue of religious freedom.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "Preserving Religious Freedom," speech given at Chapman University School of Law on February 4, 2011 (Part III). For the full transcript see http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/elder-oaks-religious-freedom-Chapman-University

Why is Religious Freedom Generally Important?

Religious Freedom provides a foundation for other freedoms

  • Religious freedom impacts "a country's security and its economic and political progress."
    • "And because the impact of religious freedom extends beyond the realm of religion and has ramifications for a country's security and its economic and political progress, more students and practitioners of foreign policy need to focus more time and attention on it." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, July 30, 2012 Human Rights First, "How to Promote International Religious Freedom: Blueprint for the Next Administration," Dec. 2012. http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/blueprints2012/HRF_Religious_Freedom_blueprint.pdf.

  • When religious freedom is not protected, other freedoms often go unprotected.
    • "Unfortunately, there are many examples of exclusion of people from the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief. In some countries recognition of religious practice is by definition limited to a particular list of religions, with the result that members of other religions or beliefs face problems, for instance when applying for official documents." Heiner Bieledfeldt, "Limitations on Religious Freedom have 'Chilling Effect'", New Europe Online, 11/15/2010, http://www.neurope.eu/article/limitations-religions-freedom-have-chilling-effect.
    • "Moreover, those who have exercised their right to convert to another religion or belief are not only confronted with negative reactions from society at large; in some countries they are also exposed to criminal prosecution. Further, as a result of a conversion, marriages have been nullified against the will of the concerned couple and persons have been excluded from the right to inheritance." Heiner Bieledfeldt, "Limitations on Religious Freedom have 'Chilling Effect'", New Europe Online, 11/15/2010, http://www.neurope.eu/article/limitations-religions-freedom-have-chilling-effect.

  • "Religious freedom is an indicator of free societies."
    • "Religious freedom is not only about freedom of religion; it is the cornerstone of freedom of expression and assembly, which are essential for secure and thriving societies." Human Rights First, "How to Promote International Religious Freedom: Blueprint for the Next Administration," Dec. 2012. http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/blueprints2012/HRF_Religious_Freedom_blueprint.pdf.
    • "We know from empirical data that religious freedom is an indicator of free societies with accountable governments and thriving civil societies. We also know the converse: denying religious freedom increases conflict and hostility, leads to restrictions on civil and political rights, hinders democracy and stability, and breeds violent extremism." Human Rights First, "How to Promote International Religious Freedom: Blueprint for the Next Administration," Dec. 2012. http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/blueprints2012/HRF_Religious_Freedom_blueprint.pdf.

Religious freedom contributes to the ethical and moral advancement of society

  • The moral advancement of society is driven by religious principles.
    • "Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption by pulpit preaching. Examples include the abolition of the slave trade in England and the Emancipation Proclamation in this country. The same is true of the Civil Rights movement of the last half-century. These great advances were not motivated and moved by secular ethics or persons who believed in moral relativism. They were driven primarily by persons who had a clear religious vision of what was morally right." Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion," Part I of Speech given at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City, May 16, 2013.
  • The Constitution can only govern a moral and religious people.
    • "John Adams... wisely observed that: 'we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.'" Dallin H. Oaks, "Preserving Religious Freedom," speech given at Chapman University School of Law on February 4, 2011 (Part I) (citing Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, 228–29 (Books for Libraries Press, 1969). See also Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, "Faith, Family, and Religious Freedom," Clark Memorandum, Fall 2013, p. 25.
  • Religious freedom encourages higher moral standards than what the government requires under law, resulting in fewer violations and greater accountability.
    • Religions advocate for high moral standards and encourage accountability for wrongdoing. Religions also teach values such as service, gratitude, humility, honesty, and industry.
    • "Many scholars have gathered empirical evidence tracing the strong correlation between contemporary religious observance in America and virtuous behavior. For example, religiously observant citizens tend to be more generous and civically-minded neighbors... According to estimates, more than 90 percent of those who attend weekly worship services donate to charity, and nearly 70 percent volunteer for charitable causes." "How Religion is Vital to Society," Mormon Newsroom, Commentary, March 12, 2012, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/religions-vital-place-society#_edn3.
  • Religious freedom allows individuals to act according to conscience.
    • "If we remove the rights of man to dictate according to their conscience, we also take away their responsibility for their own actions, and we bring their wrongdoings upon the controlling governments." Hans Noot, "Enhancing Freedom of Religion or Belief in the EU," European Interreglious Forum for Religious Freedom, October 20, 2013, http://www.eifrf-articles.org/Enhancing-Freedom-of-Religion-or-Belief-in-the-EU_a71.html.
    • "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? - in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil1.html.

Religious freedom positively impacts economic growth, business, and innovation

  • There is a significant correlation between religious freedom and political freedom, civil liberties, economic freedom, and GDP.
    • One study noted that religious freedom is one of only three factors significantly correlated to global economic growth. See Brian J. Grim, Greg Clark, and Robert Edward Snyder, "Is Religious Freedom Good for Business?: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis," Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 2014 Volume 10, Article 4, http://www.religjournal.com/articles/article_view.php?id=85.
    • In countries with high restrictions on religious freedoms, "young entrepreneurs are pushed to take their talents elsewhere due to the instability associated with high and rising religious restrictions and hostilities." Brian J. Grim, "Religious Freedom Linked to Economic Growth, finds Global Study," The Weekly Number Blog, June 2, 2014, http://theweeklynumber.com/1/post/2014/06/innovation-is-twice-as-likely-in-countries-with-religious-freedom.html.
  • Religious freedom promotes innovation.
    • "Innovation is more than twice as likely among countries with low religious restrictions and hostilities... Where stability exists, there is more opportunity to invest and conduct normal and predictable business operations, especially in emerging and new markets." Brian J. Grim, "Religious Freedom Linked to Economic Growth, finds Global Study," The Weekly Number Blog, June 2, 2014, http://theweeklynumber.com/1/post/2014/06/innovation-is-twice-as-likely-in-countries-with-religious-freedom.html.
  • Restrictions on religious freedom chill investment and consumer sentiment.
    • "[R]eligious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies - making innovation much more difficult." Brian J. Grim, "Religious Freedom Linked to Economic Growth, finds Global Study," The Weekly Number Blog, June 2, 2014, http://theweeklynumber.com/1/post/2014/06/innovation-is-twice-as-likely-in-countries-with-religious-freedom.html
    • "Recently, the Chinese National Petroleum company, working with Goldman Sachs, had to downsize its plan to raise money with American investors by about $7 billion because of the company's ties to Sudan, a country the U.S. government has called the largest violator of religious freedom in the world... " Alon, Ilan and Gregory Chase, "Religious Freedom and Economic Prosperity," Cato Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2005). http://www.freetheworld.com/papers/Alon_and_Chase.pdf.
    • "International businesses should be concerned about religious freedom because it affects the general business environment, political relationships among countries, and consumer sentiment of companies doing business in countries that suppress religious freedom."Alon, Ilan and Gregory Chase, "Religious Freedom and Economic Prosperity," Cato Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2005). http://www.freetheworld.com/papers/Alon_and_Chase.pdf.

Religious freedom promotes greater global peace and security

  • Religious freedom is a global security issue.
    • "Religious freedom is a universally recognized and fundamental human right; but it is also a human security issue, and as such it should be a key element of U.S. national security and counterterrorism, conflict prevention and mitigation, democracy promotion, and public diplomacy strategies." Human Rights First, "How to Promote International Religious Freedom: Blueprint for the Next Administration," December 2012, http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/blueprints2012/HRF_Religious_Freedom_blueprint.pdf.
  • Religious freedom prevents and protects against violent acts stemming from extremist thought.
    • "Recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria underscore the urgency of formulating U.S. foreign policy that takes account of the motivations of religious actors, and promotes religious freedom. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, restrictions on religious freedom increased sharply in Arab Spring countries just before the uprisings began. Successful transitions in those countries will be measured by the embrace of religious pluralism and whether religion will be used as a weapon to suppress dissent and the rights of women and religious minorities." Human Rights First, "How to Promote International Religious Freedom: Blueprint for the Next Administration," December 2012, http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/blueprints2012/HRF_Religious_Freedom_blueprint.pdf.
    • When asked if there is a connection between religious tolerance, freedom, and global security, Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, responded: "Very much so. We have found where there is religious freedom, there is more stability. And where there is the absence of religious freedom, there is more chance for religious extremism, extremist violence. And so there's definitely a connection. So, we try to integrate religious freedom into our foreign policy and into our national security." PBS NewsHour, "How Promotion of Religious Freedom Can Help Prevent Extreme Violence," Sept. 30, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/religion-july-dec13-cook_09-30/.
    • "Laws prohibiting blasphemy or defamation of religion, which fill a vacuum of authority, are regularly abused, creating instability and empowering violent religious extremists. The concept of blasphemy has long been a destabilizing force, and accusations of blasphemy easily stir popular sensitivities, which extremists with political agendas can exploit to rally violent mobs. The latest international incident of an alleged act of blasphemy being used to justify mob violence was in September 2012 in reaction to the anti-Muslim video The Innocence of Muslims." Human Rights First, "How to Promote International Religious Freedom: Blueprint for the Next Administration," December 2012, http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/blueprints2012/HRF_Religious_Freedom_blueprint.pdf.
  • Hostilities toward religious groups may result when religious freedoms are suppressed.
    • Religious contention continues to be a reason for hostilities toward religious groups in many countries, and this violence is increasing. Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, "Religious Hostilities Reach Six Year High" January 14, 2014 http://www.pewforum.org/2014/01/14/religious-hostilities-reach-six-year-high/.
    • The U.S. Department of State has documented numerous instances of hostilities resulting from restrictions on religious freedoms. See U.S. Department of State, Fact Sheet on 2013, International Religious Freedom Report, July 28, 2014, http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper.

Religious freedom encourages diversity and tolerance

  • Freedom of religion enables peoples to live together.
    • "Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it." President Barack Obama, June 4, 2009, Human Rights First, "How to Promote International Religious Freedom: Blueprint for the Next Administration," Dec. 2012 http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/blueprints2012/HRF_Religious_Freedom_blueprint.pdf.
    • "The Religious Liberty clauses are both a protection of individual liberty and a provision for ordering the relationship of religion and public life. They allow us to live with our deepest differences." "Why We Need Religious Freedom," Mormon Newsroom, Commentary, Feb. 3, 2012, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/why-religious-freedom.
  • Religious freedom enables diversity to be a source of national strength
    • "[F]reedom of religion and conscience require more than simply living and coexisting with our differences. These preeminent freedoms also create rejuvenating obligations. All recipients of religious freedom — every group and individual who is free to live according to the dictates of conscience - must in turn protect that same freedom for all others, especially the most vulnerable, whether religious or not. That is the obligation. And it is rejuvenating because it 'enable[s] diversity to be a source of national strength.'" "Why We Need Religious Freedom," Mormon Newsroom, Commentary, Feb. 3, 2012, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/why-religious-freedom.

Religious freedom helps establish strong societies, families, and individuals

  • Religious organizations often help those who have no other resources (including from the government) get the help they need.
    • "Although freedom of religion can come up against other laws and come in conflict with other policies of a nation, a broad application of freedom of religion allows for the benefits that religious organizations can bring to a community to flourish. For example, 'several states have recently passed laws that forbid what the government deems 'harboring' of undocumented immigrants,' but the churches consider the action as caring for the immigrant’s religious needs. Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi, Archbishop of Mobile, stated that the law in Alabama limited the church’s ability to 'baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the wick with, or preach the word of God to, an undocumented immigrant.' There were also limits on giving counsel in times of difficulty and in preparation for marriage. Where the churches could be a support system for undocumented individuals and assist them in improving their family relationships, overcoming addictions, or better practicing religious beliefs, the churches are limited in their ability to help such people become contributors to society." United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty," Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm.
  • Religious freedom fosters stronger families.
    • Many religions place importance on the family and the preservation and protection of the family.
    • Religions advocate for chaste relationships, which lead to more stable homes with committed parents.
    • Adoption agencies supported and run by churches or other religious groups have run into conflicts with local laws, which has prevented these adoption agencies to continue. Some religiously affiliated agencies "refuse to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit." Due to this refusal, these agencies have voluntarily gone or have been driven out of business. This results in fewer adoption agencies able to help families expand and fewer children being placed in homes. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty," Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm.

Religious freedom enhances education, the arts, and cultural traditions

  • Religious organizations send volunteers to assist education and literacy in developing countries.
    • See, e.g., Bible League, Newsroom, http://www.bibleleague.org/newsroom/ghana-literacy (discussing benefits of a bible-based literacy program in Africa and Asia).
  • Restraints on religious freedom lead to restraints on other freedoms, including education rights.
    • In Pakistan in 2009, the Taliban, violent religious extremists, banned girls from attending schools in the Swat valley. Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who lived in the Swat valley and wanted education for all, stood up for education of women in Pakistan and was targeted in a Taliban attack in 2012. Yousafzai survived the attack, and stands for the right of women and girls to receive education. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her efforts. Basharat Peer, "The Girl Who Wanted to Go to School," The New Yorker, October 10, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-girl-who-wanted-to-go-to-school; Declan Walsh, "Two Champions of Children are Given Nobel Peace Prize," New York Times, Oct 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/11/world/europe/kailash-satyarthi-and-malala-yousafzai-are-awarded-nobel-peace-prize.html?hp&action&_r=0; "Malala Yousafzai, Portrait of the girl blogger," BBC News Magazine, Oct 10, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19899540; Owais Tohid, "My Conversations with Malala Yousafzai: The girl who stood up to the Taliban," The Christian Science Monitor, Oct 11, 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2012/1011/My-conversations-with-Malala-Yousafzai-the-girl-who-stood-up-to-the-Taliban-video.
  • Religious freedom helps preserve national and ethnic cultures and traditions through rituals and ceremony. When religious freedom is limited, displacement of religious groups can lead to a loss of these traditions.
    • "In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of members of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. In conflict zones, mass displacement has become all too common... Members of minority religious communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination, and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to change the demographics of entire regions permanently." U.S. Department of State, Fact Sheet on 2013, International Religious Freedom Report, July 28, 2014, http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2014/07/20140728304540.html#axzz3Fhk5dmyN.
  • Religious freedom stimulates art, expression, and creativity.
    • Historically and currently, religion, belief, and faith are major topics in art, theatre, film, and music. Many great works of art were commissioned by religions, and faith-inspired work continues to touch many people today. Artists who can fully express themselves, which requires freedom of religious speech, are free to create more and varied works.

Why is Religious Freedom Important to LDS Members?

**To see the Church's official statement on religious freedom and find in-depth explanations, videos, and articles, visit http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/official-statement/religious-freedom

Religious freedom in the United States "opened the way for the Restoration."


  • "After centuries of spiritual darkness, truth-seeking men and women protested against current religious practices. They recognized that many of the doctrines and ordinances of the gospel had been changed or lost. They sought for greater spiritual light, and many spoke of the need for a restoration of truth. They did not claim, however, that God had called them to be a prophet. Instead, they tried to reform teachings and practices that they believed had been changed or corrupted. Their efforts led to the organization of many Protestant churches. This Reformation resulted in an increased emphasis on religious freedom, which opened the way for the final Restoration." Lesson 1: The Message of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service, (2004), 31-46,

Religious freedom is necessary for the continued preaching of the gospel.

  • The gospel must be taught to everyone.
    • "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." (Matt. 28:19-20)
    • "For, verily, the sound must go forth from this place into all the world, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth-the gospel must be preached unto every creature, with signs following them that believe." (D&C 58:64)
    • "And this gospel shall be preached unto every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." (D&C 133:37)
      • How can the gospel be preached unto every creature if people cannot freely practice religon?
  • Zion must increase.
    • "For Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged; her stakes must be strengthened; yea, verily I say unto you, Zion must arise and put on her beautiful garments."(D&C 82:14)
      • How can Zion increase and flourish if the laws of the land prohibit or inhibit religious freedom?
  • Salvation of Living depends on salvation of the dead.
    • "And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers-that they without us cannot be made perfect-neither can we without our dead be made perfect." (D&C 128:15)
      • We must be able to build up temples so that the work may continue and progress.
  • The spreading of the gospel is necessary for preparing the weak for things that are coming.
    • "And for this cause, that men might be made partakers of the glories which were to be revealed, the Lord sent forth the fullness of his gospel, his everlasting covenant, reasoning in plainness and simplicity-To prepare the weak for those things which are coming on the earth, and for the Lor's errand in the day when the weak shall confound the wise, and the little one become a strong nation, and two shall put their tens of thousands to flight." (D&C 133:57-58)


Religious freedom allows members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to live according to their religious convictions.

  • Members of the LDS Church understand from Church history that religious freedom should not be taken for granted. The opposition that the early Church faced is evidence that members must ever strive to preserve their ability to worship according to their beliefs, and ensure that right is protected for all. "Why Religious Freedom Matters to Mormons," Mormon Newsroom, Commentary, February 20, 2012, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/religious-freedom-matters-mormons
  • "This Church can never dumb down its doctrine in response to social goodwill or political expediency or any other reason. It is only the high ground of revealed truth that gives us any footing on which to lift another who may feel troubled or forsaken." Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, "The Call to Be Christlike," Ensign, June 2014, p. 33.
  • "[T]he rule forever is that our behavior has to reflect our religious beliefs and our gospel commitments." Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, "The Call to Be Christlike," Ensign, June 2014, p. 32.
  • If the laws of the land prevent us from fully behaving in accordance with our religious beliefs then we do not have freedom of religion.
  • As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we are "to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [we] may be in." Mosiah 18:9.
  • How can we be witnesses of God wherever we are and in whatever we do if the laws of the land do not allow us to freely practice our religion?
  • "In dedicated spaces, like temples, houses of worship, and our own homes, we should teach the truth and the commandments plainly and thoroughly as we understand them from the plan of salvation revealed in the restored gospel. Our right to do so is protected by constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, as well as by the privacy that is honored even in countries without formal constitutional guarantees." Dallin H. Oaks, "Loving Others and Living With Differences," October 2014 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/loving-others-and-living-with-differences?lang=eng


Religious freedom leads to a better society for all.

  • Question: How do the protections and preservation of religious freedom benefit people who might not be considered people of faith? Elder Oaks: Let me just call upon it and answer in these terms. We know that we cannot have a civilized society by depending upon laws and law enforcement to regulate the conduct of citizens. The amount of conduct of citizens in any respect, whether it is obeying the laws or not obeying laws, simply obeying ethical conduct or consideration of neighbor and so on. The amount of that that can be the subject of laws or that can be enforced by laws is a tiny fraction. The civilized society is held in place by obedience to the unenforceable. And it’s religion that teaches people to obey the unenforceable. And if you only have half of the people who believe in God and are religious, society still has a great interest in religion because it holds things together. And people who are not religious have ethical standards, and they have other standards. I believe as a religious person that the belief that I have that I’m accountable to God, now or later, holds me in line more rigorously than ethical standards or professional standards could ever hold me in line. And that’s why I think society has a great interest in religion, even if the people who are called upon to defend it are not themselves believers. "Value, exercise, and protect religious freedom, Elder Oaks Says," Church News, May 27, 2014, https://www.lds.org/church/news/value-exercise-and-protect-religious-freedom-elder-oaks-says-?lang=eng&query=religious+freedom+threat]

What is the Current State of the Law?

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Based upon the criteria enunciated in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963), and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972), the previous standard for determining whether a government action violated the Free Exercise Clause consisted of "a balancing test that took into account whether the challenged action imposed a substantial burden on the practice of religion, and if it did, whether it was needed to serve a compelling government interest." Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2751, 2760 (2014). But in 1990, the Supreme Court in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon vs. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990) rejected this balancing test and instead "held that, under the First Amendment, 'neutral, generally applicable laws may be applied to religious practices even when not supported by a compelling governmental interest.'" 134 S.C.t at 2761 (citing City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 514, 117 S.Ct. 2157, 138 L.Ed.2d 624 (1997)).

In response to Employment Division, in 1993 Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"). 42 U.S.C. 2000bb - 2000bb-4. RFRA provides a general rule that "Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability." 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1(a). The exception to this general rule is that the "Government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person-(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1(b). "RFRA did more than merely restore the balancing test used in the Sherbert line of cases; it provided even broader protection for religious liberty than was available under those decisions." 134 S.Ct. 2761 n. 3.

Congress intended RFRA to apply to both the Federal Government and the States. But in 1997 the Supreme Court invalidated RFRA as applied to the States because it determined Congress had exceeded its authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amended when it attempted to enforce the First Amendment. City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 117 S.Ct. 2157, 138 L.Ed.2d 624 (1997). Congress responded to City of Boerne v. Flores by passing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA"). 42 U.S.C. 2000cc -- 2000cc-5. "RLUIPA amended RFRA's definition of the 'exercise of religion.'" 134 S.Ct. 2761. Indeed, through RLUIPA Congress sought to effectuate a "complete separation from First Amendment case law" by deleting "the reference to the First Amendment and [defining] the 'exercise of religion' to include 'any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.'" 134 S.Ct. 2761-62 (citing 2000cc-5(7)(A)). Congress also "mandated that this concept 'be construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution.'" 134 S.Ct. 2762 (citing 2000cc-3(g)).

In very succinct terms, Federal Government actions which may burden the free exercise of religion are evaluated under the standards set forth in RFRA. Moreover, as a result of the City of Boerne v. Flores decision, several states subsequently enacted their own RFRA-type statutes to protect the free exercise of religion. As such, in determining whether State governmental actions violate the free exercise of religion one must review applicable state law to see what protections have been enacted in the State's Constitution and statutes.

Supreme Court Case Summaries

The following case summaries are provided for educational purposes. If you would like to summarize other significant Supreme Court cases for this website please contact Michael Fielding at 816-983-8353 or michael.d.fielding@gmail.com.

City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997) (The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was held unconstitutional on the grounds that the law went beyond Congress' authority to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, which is remedial only.) Detailed summary.



Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990) (The Free Exercise Clause does not prohibit the State from denying unemployment benefits to individuals discharged for using sacramental peyote.) Detailed summary.



Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972) (The State's interest in promoting compulsory high school education did not outweigh the free exercise of religion where there was a demonstrated long-standing, sincere religious belief and the State's interests were otherwise met.) Detailed summary.



Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) (Disqualification of unemployment compensation benefits due to a refusal based on religious beliefs to work on Saturday imposed an unconstitutional burden on the free exercise of religion.) Detailed summary.



Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2751 (2014) (The Health and Human Services mandated requirement to provide four-specified methods of contraception failed to meet the government’s compelling interest of providing cost-effective contraception by the least restrictive means possible and therefore violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.) Detailed summary.

State Religious Freedom Law

The following is a summary of state constitutional provisions, statutes and significant legal decisions regarding the free exercise of religion in the respective states. The law varies from state to state depending upon the particular constitutional provisions, statutory enactments and judicial decisions.

The process of identifying, listing and summarizing applicable state law is on-going. If you would like to assist please contact Mike Fielding at 816-983-8353 or michael.d.fielding@gmail.com

Click on an individual state to see its applicable law.

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

District of Columbia

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming


Sources


 





















































 

Links to learn more

Sign up for free daily law and religion headline emails from BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

http://www.iclrs.org/common/user.profile.php?action=subscribe

LDS Affiliated Resources

Other Organizations

Videos

  • Elder Wickman, Religious Liberty 2015: Where Are We?: (Friday morning, https://vimeo.com/119975755, 1:10:30)
  • Professors Sally Gordon & Paul Bender, The New Law of Religious Freedom: Hobby Lobby and The Town of Greece Decisions (Friday afternoon, https://vimeo.com/120072403, 00:00:05)

Disclaimer
This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal or other professional advice.

CONNECT