From the Colonial era to the present, religions and religious beliefs have played a significant role in the political life of the United States. Religion has been at the heart of some of the best and some of the worst movements in American history. Now that America has expanded from the largely Protestant beliefs of the 17th century to a nation of some 3,000 religious groups, it is more vital than ever that every American understands their rights. There is an appropriate role of religion in public life that is explicitly laid out in the constitution - the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Many American's, those with and without beliefs, don't understand completely how their right to religion is protected. Due to this, many people are taken advantage of.
What is religious freedom?
The highest law in our land is the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that everyone in the United States has the right to practice his or her own religion, or no religion at all. Our country's founders -- who were of different religious backgrounds themselves -- knew the best way to protect religious liberty was to keep the government out of religion. This implementation of the first amendment is one of the reasons why the United States has prospered. In countries where a similar bill was not added, nations have fallen apart.
Furthermore, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from encouraging or promoting religion in any way. This is one of the reasons we do not have an official religion of the United States, despite many claiming it to be a Christian country. This clause also states that the government cannot give any financial aid to religious groups. Lastly, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment gives you the right to worship or not as you so choose. The government can't penalize you because of your religious beliefs.
Are my liberties being violated?
In 1971, the Supreme Court decided on Lemon v. Kurtzman. Through this case, they created three tests for determining whether a particular government act or policy unconstitutionally promotes religion. The Lemon tests says that in order to be constitutional, a new policy must have a non-religious purpose, not end up promoting or favoring any set of religious beliefs, and not overly involve the government with religion.
There are some key differences between having your liberties violated, and simply being intolerant of others choices. For example, you would have your liberties being violated if you were not allowed to pray privately in your home or in a public place. However your liberties are not being violated if you are not allowed to force others to pray as well. Your liberties are violated when you are not allowed to purchase, read, or possess religious books or materials. Your liberties are not being violated when others have access to books, movies, or other religious texts that you don't agree with or like. There should be no government law that restricts you from accessing or preaching your religion. However, you do not have a right to force your religion on others.
Here are some further examples. It is not constitutional to teach religion in public schools, have teachers start the day or meeting with a prayer, or for a public school to have prayers at graduation. It’s not always ok to celebrate religious holidays in public schools, depending on what the teacher plans to do. For example, you could make Christmas stockings but not put on a Nativity pageant. However, religious clubs and organizations are not unconstitutional because they do not require anyone to join. It is not something forced upon others. In addition, though, anyone in a religious club cannot receive better access than someone who is not in the club. Another example is that schools can teach science in classrooms, however it’s not unlawful for parents to teach their children other creation stories via a faith in their own home. There are many examples of how Christians have had their liberties violated in America, but other religious have been persecuted as well.
What if I have had my liberties violated?
If you believe your religious rights have been inflicted upon, you are not alone. There are different avenues you can take to get help. Religious discrimination involves treating a person unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs, and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission ensures that this does not happen. It is illegal to harass a person because of his or her religion. If you feel your liberties have been violated, you can file a Charge of Discrimination. A charge of discrimination is a signed statement asserting that an employer, union or labor organization engaged in employment discrimination. It requests EEOC to take remedial action.
There are other organizations that will help if religious liberties are being violated. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, working to protect our liberties. The ADF takes on many important religious cases and defends the rights of others in court. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a plethora of important information about religious liberties, and is a great resource for learning more about the constitution.
As written in the First Amendment, religious freedom includes two complementary protections. First, the right to religious belief and expression and secondly, a guarantee that the government neither prefers religion over non-religion nor favors particular faiths over others. These dual protections work hand in hand, allowing religious liberty to thrive. Through this, we can safeguard both religion and government from the undue influences of the other.