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The U.S. Constitution, in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights, contains twin guarantees concerning religion. The first requires that there be no establishment of religion and, second, that the freedom of religious expression is protected. Taken together, and interpreted broadly, these clauses provide strong legal protections for religious freedom.

The First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion means generally that government should not interfere with religious practice. The Constitution, however, does not protect religious practice in all instances.

In general, the BJC believes that government should not interfere with religious beliefs and practices unless it has a strong secular governmental interest in doing so. In 1990, the Supreme Court held by a narrow majority that the Free Exercise Clause does not require exceptions to laws that incidentally burden religion. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). While the Court carved out some situations that were still entitled to a higher level of protection, the Court made it more difficult for religious claimants to prevail under the Free Exercise Clause, leaving the law of religious accommodations mainly to the legislative branches of government.

The BJC supports many legislative efforts that offer greater protection than courts otherwise may provide. We have often led broad coalition efforts that supported passage of such laws.  In short, the government should avoid substantially burdening a person's sincerely held religious beliefs absent an important governmental interest that could not be pursued in a less restrictive manner and should make efforts to accommodate specific religious needs where it is feasible to do so. Examples of laws and proposals supported by the BJC that are intended to promote free exercise include the following.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-2000bb4 (1993) prohibits any federal law that would substantially burden religious expression without a compelling reason. The Act has been interpreted not to apply to state laws and local ordinances.

State Religious Freedom Acts

While many states have constitutional provisions that provide greater protection for the free exercise of religion than the federal Constitution, others have adopted legislation, commonly referred to as State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, that requires greater accommodation of religion within their borders.  Other states continue to debate such measures in an effort to strengthen further the free exercise rights of citizens.

Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc (2000) is a law designed to increase protections of religious assemblies and institutions from zoning and historic landmark laws that substantially interfere with their free exercise. It similarly protects the religious rights of prisoners and other persons in government custody.

Religious Freedom in the Workplace

The BJC supports legislation that would increase protections for employees in the workplace, such as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that employers with 15 or more employees not discriminate on the basis of religion in the workplace. This law means that these employers, in the absence of undue hardship, must provide reasonable accommodations for the employee's religious practice.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has interpreted that provision so narrowly that employers need not accommodate religion (e.g., give employees time off to observe religious holidays and to worship) if it would even minimally inconvenience the employer. We support efforts that would remedy this situation.

Articles | Religious freedom panel adds Nigeria to list of world’s worst violators
Articles | Native American issues play key role in free exercise law
Articles | State Dept. reveals religious freedom violators
Articles | Workplace discrimination claims on the rise
News | Groups oppose federal rule limiting books in prison chapels
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Religious Groups File Brief in Clergy Housing Exemption Appeal
Last year, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled unconstitutional the tax exemption for clergy's housing costs. The parsonage allowance, Judge Barbara Crabb held, favors religion over non-religion in violation of the First Amendment.  Her surprising decision is being appealed to the 7t...
President Obama: Religious Hatred Has No Place in Society
At the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast today, President Obama discussed the recent tragic shootings at a Jewish Synagogue and Community Center in Kansas City. Here is an excerpt from his remarks: That this occurred now -- as Jews were preparing to celebrate Passover, as Christian...