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Constitution, US Politics

Individual rights – religion

Religion and the US Constitution

Key points:

  • Two clauses in the First Amendment of the US Constitution have made this extremely complex and contentious inAmerica:
    1. ‘the free exercise clause’ – no law prohibiting religion
    2. ‘the establishment clause’ – no law establishing a religion
  • A state for example cannot require parents to send children to school beyond 8th grade – Amish refuse to do this.
  • Although a man cannot have more than one wife (Mormon) – so the right to religion is not absolute!
  • The ‘wall of separation’ between church and state is often quoted but this is not in the Constitution. It was coined by Thomas Jefferson.
  • The clauses have had weird consequences for things such as school prayers in public education.
  • Whilst school prayers have been struck down, animal sacrifices have been allowed!
  • In contradiction the words ‘In God We Trust’ appears on the back of every dollar and the Supreme Court put up a Christmas tree each year, ignoring the non-Christian workers in their midst!

 Questions to consider for class discussion:

  1. The First Amendment is fairly explicit about religion. How does this protect the rights of the individual? Does it put too much into the hands of the federal courts?
  2. It is clearly an area that requires adjudication as the Courts cannot ignore it since it is so explicit in the Constitution – what difference would constitutional amendment make?
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