Religious Freedom

The founders of the United States and the drafters of our Constitutional considered freedom of religion to be of great importance.  That’s why the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits infringement on the right to worship as you choose. We’re all aware that freedom of speech does not include the right to panic people by falsely screaming “Fire” in a crowded theater, and similar limits apply to all rights.  We should be grateful to live in a country that allows us the freedom to practice the religion of our choice.

Regarding religion, the First Amendment states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  

The first half of the statement is known as the “establishment clause.” This has prevented the United States from having a national religion, a common practice when the Constitution was drafted.  There was a Church of England, but no Church of the United States has ever been established. This is not surprising as many immigrants came to the United States expressly seeking religious freedom. The courts have held that the First Amendment also applies to the states, so that there cannot be a Church of Texas or Church of North Dakota.

Despite these prohibitions, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that the practice of denominational religion was prohibited at public schools.  Until that time, public school students of all religions were expected to participate in Christian worship during school hours. This change came due to pressure from parents whose children were traumatized by the conflict between following school rules and violating their religious beliefs. In New York City it’s not uncommon to have children that practice twenty different religions seated in the same classroom. Some may chuckle about “Christmas Festivals” now being called “Winter Solstice Celebrations,” but it’s worth a little awkward language for the sake of even just one child in the class that’s Buddhist or Jewish or Hindu or Muslim that might otherwise feel excluded.

The second half of the statement is known as the “free exercise clause.”  Most of the laws prohibiting religious head coverings, facial hair and other physical displays of religion were struck down in the 20th Century.  Laws requiring businesses to close on Sunday were taken off the books as they were unfair, for example, to Jewish people who might need to close their store on Saturdays or Muslim people that did not work on Fridays.  The law does not prohibit any beliefs, but does limit practices. For example, you can believe in human sacrifice, but this will not excuse you from laws prohibiting murder.

If you have any questions about any aspect of the law, please feel free to call or write us.  Please consider us your very own link to the law!

2019-12-18T14:37:22+00:00By |0 Comments

About the Author:

Senior Partner Ms. Wittenstein began working at the firm in 1985 as a managing paralegal, learning all the practices and procedures of the firm from Mr. Wittenstein and the staff. From 1995-1998, she attended CUNY Law School where she made a mark as a teaching assistant for Civil Rights leader Haywood Burns. She founded a Human Rights Delegation to Haiti and studied Constitutional Law with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Working at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commision (EEOC), she learned a great deal about Employment Discrimination matters. She brought her knowledge of the Personal Injury practice and her passion for Civil Rights to the firm when she was admitted to the Bar in 1999. In 2000, she became a partner and the firm name was changed to Wittenstein & Wittenstein, Esqs. PC.

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