United States Constitution
Designed by many influential deists such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the United States Constitution is a secular document, despite the claims of people who think that America is a Christian nation.
The First Amendment
The first amendment (part of the Bill of Rights) reads:
- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first two clauses are known as the establishment clause and free exercise clause, respectively. Together, they define the wall of separation between church and state that Thomas Jefferson wrote of.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the establishment clause as meaning that the government may not favor one religion over another, or favor religion in general over no religion (or vice-versa). In other words, the government must remain strictly neutral in matters of religion.
At the same time, the free exercise clause guarantees freedom of religion. A proper balance between these two clauses can sometimes be hard to find.
In the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court established the Lemon test for determining whether a law violates the establishment clause: a law is legal if:
- It has a legitimate secular purpose, and
- Its principal effect neither advances nor inhibits religion, and
- It does not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
Sherbert v. Verner, 1963
Sherbert v. Verner was significant in determining the way freedom of conscience is handled in the US. A Seventh-day Adventist was changed from a five day to a six day working week, including Saturday. Since they considered working on Saturday to be working on the Sabbath, she refused to work and was subsequently fired. She applied for unemployment benefit and was denied. The legal challenge progressed to the US Supreme court, while ruled that denying her belief was an "unconstitutional burden on the free exercise of her religion". The dissenting opinion pointed out this ignored potential secular beliefs such as Saturday (or any other day) should not be a day of work, which is either unfair or an absurd conclusion to reach.
- "The State, in other words, must single out for financial assistance those whose behavior is religiously motivated, even though it denies such assistance to others whose identical behavior (in this case, inability to work on Saturdays) is not religiously motivated. It has been suggested that such singling out of religious conduct for special treatment may violate the constitutional limitations on state action. [...] Those situations in which the Constitution may require special treatment on account of religion are, in my view, few and far between"
The court's ruling gave rise to the Sherbert test, which prevented any substantial burden on the exercise of religion unless there was suitable justification for such a burden. Some legal scholars argue that laws should apply equally and while religion should be be subject to discrimination, it should not be privileged either.
- "[Equal regard] holds that the interests and concerns of every member of the political community should be treated equally, that no person or group should be treated as unworthy or otherwise subordinated to an inferior status "
- "It is impossible to defend the privileging view of religious liberty in any way consistent with this requirement of impartiality [equal regard]; as a result, every theory that supposes religion to be constitutionally privileged will run afoul of basic norms associated with the Establishment Clause. "
- "[...] the promise of strict scrutiny review for religious exemption cases has remained largely unfulfilled. [...] many scholars and students alike interpret the Court's holdings as a preference for religion over secular forms of conscience. [... Regarding Sherbert and related cases,] The Court therefore appeared to be saying that religiously motivated conduct will be guarded against state intrusions animated by all but the most compelling of governmental interests. "
The weight to grant religious beliefs and exactly how to apply the principles of the US constitution, specifically the establishment clause of the 1st amendment, remain controversial to this day.
Town of Greece v. Galloway, 2013
- "The [US Supreme] Court must decide whether the town of Greece, New York, imposes an impermissible establishment of religion by opening its monthly board meetings with a prayer. It must be concluded … that no violation of the Constitution has been shown "
- ↑ 
- ↑ C. Eisgruber and L. Sager, Equal Regard in Law and Religion: A Critical Anthology, S. Feldman, ed.; New York: New York Univ. Press, 2001.
- ↑ Prabha Sipi Bhandari, The Failure of Equal Regard to Explain the Sherbert Quartet, NYU Law review, April 1997
- ↑ Town of Greece Decision May Change How Supreme Court Looks at First Amendment