You are here

Religious Liberty

Basics

Religion is the subject of two clauses in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Neither clause could protect religious liberty effectively without the other. Religious liberty cannot exist without the church-state separation found in the Establishment Clause. At the same time, religious liberty cannot exist without reasonable exemptions to generally applicable laws found in the Free...

Read More

Religion is the subject of two clauses in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Neither clause could protect religious liberty effectively without the other. Religious liberty cannot exist without the church-state separation found in the Establishment Clause. At the same time, religious liberty cannot exist without reasonable exemptions to generally applicable laws found in the Free Exercise Clause.

The Establishment Clause alone would lead to a discrimination against people of faith. The Free Exercise Clause alone would lead to conflict between religions in the democratic process. Taken together, the two clauses protect people of all faiths from discrimination, without creating license for individuals of any faith to discriminate against those who believe differently.

Often, government actions violate both clauses. For instance, the imposition of mandatory public school prayer violates the Establishment Clause in establishing government-approved religion, and at the same time interferes with the free exercise of the students with differing religious beliefs. Because the two clauses exist in tension, however, certain interpretations of either clause, if carried to logical extremes, can render one clause in conflict with the other. For instance, chaplains in the armed forces and the prison system are funded by the state, which arguably could violate the Establishment Clause. However, if the state failed to provide chaplains, then it would be denying soldiers and prisoners their right to worship freely.

Thus, Americans’ religious freedom depends on the careful calibration of the two clauses, such that their provisions buttress each other rather than undermining each other’s intent.

Joshua Houston, General Counsel for Texas Impact and the Interfaith Center, provided invited testimony on religious liberty, the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the importance of inclusive stakeholder processes to the Senate Committee on State Affairs, February 17, 2016.

See more posts about: 
Contains VideoAdvocateStatements

The Constitutional provision against "establishing" a state religion is so ingrained in our common experience that many Americans never stop to wonder how we got here. As part of the Interfaith Center's ongoing analysis of religious liberty and state public policy in Texas, we took a look at the roots of disestablishment in the early years of the United States.

See more posts about: 
Learn