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Religious Liberty
An Introduction to the Issues
from the Interfaith Working Group

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. - United States Constitution, Amendment I

The senators and representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States - United States Constitution, Article VI

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. - United States Constitution, Amendment X1V

Religious Liberty

The United States, thanks to its Constitution and the eternal vigilance of its citizens, is a model of religious liberty. We all enjoy the right to believe or not believe, to worship or not worship, as we choose. No religious organization depends on or is controlled by the government, and the government is not controlled by or dependent on any religious organization.

Religious Diversity

The Interfaith Working Group is supported by religious organizations, congregations, and clergy from seventeen religious traditions: American Baptist, Brethren, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Conservative Judaism, Episcopal, Ethical Society, Lutheran, Mennonite, Moravian, Presbyterian (PCUSA), Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, United Methodist and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. That's only a small portion of the religious groups in the United States.

Eternal Vigilance

Religious tolerance, religious liberty, and religious diversity are interdependent. Religious tolerance leads to religious liberty; religious liberty creates religious diversity; and religious diversity requires religious tolerance. Religious intolerance often results in calls to limit religious liberty, which limits religious diversity, which, as a result, has historically ended in even less religious tolerance.

When a religious organization tries to control the political process through partisan activities, elected officials at the very least risk appearing less than impartial toward a particular religious belief. When the government shows favoritism toward a religious group, it brings religious differences to the fore in the culture, promotes competition to become the favored group, reduces religious tolerance, and encourages religious groups to attempt to control the political process even more.

Unfortunately, the free exercise clause of the First Amendment is very often used as an excuse to undermine the establishment clause of the First Amendment by creating a de-facto official religion or the appearance of one. Maintaining the balance that gives us religious liberty requires eternal vigilance, and a comprehensive understanding of the many issues involved.

Organized School Prayer

Organized school prayer forces some students to participate in religious observances that may go against their beliefs, or singles them out for their religious differences if they don't participate. It fosters competition among religious groups to have the official prayers match their own beliefs. All students currently have the right to pray in school. It is organized prayer that is specifically not allowed.

Display of the Ten Commandments

The display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings, especially courtrooms and classrooms, is extremely problematic. The Constitution is the law of the land, not the Ten Commandments. This is clearly spelled out in Article VI of the Constitution. Courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments, which include very specific religious instructions, give the clear appearance of judicial favoritism to Jews and Christians, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Posting the Ten Commandments in the classroom raises all the same problems as organized school prayer. There are also at least three major versions of the Ten Commandments: Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant; anyone posting a version must pick one, implying further favoritism. And there are significant differences in translation which, though minor to a casual observer, are very important to people of faith.

Religious Displays On Public Land

There is plenty of prominent private land on which on which religious symbols may be displayed. Religious displays on public land, while deemed legal under certain circumstances, lead to the impression that the government endorses the religions featured in a display. While many governments have attempted to create a balance in such displays by including secular and multi-religious symbolism, they only tend to be displayed during major Christian holidays.

Government Subsidies

Paying parents to send children to religious schools rewards the religious organizations that run them, encourages religious segregation, and decreases religious tolerance. Government subsidy of religious charities, either directly or through vouchers, invites government control of religious activities and/or constitutes taxation without representation; taxpayers have no say in how the subsidized organizations are run without government regulation. Funds go to religious beliefs and practices which taxpayers may disagree with, and those needing government-funded services may be subjected to proselytizing. Government subsidies for religious activity cause competition and animosity between religions and can lead to the special treatment of politically-connected religious institutions.


Civil marriage and religious marriage are completely different, but often confused because states let the religious ceremony double as a state ceremony. Clergy do not have to marry anyone who asks (interfaith couples, non-members of their congregations, divorced persons, etc.) but the entanglement between the two institutions has caused governments to consider majority religious belief when forming marriage policies, and has caused some state governments to consider limiting religious practice to avoid the appearance of legal recognition for couples without licenses. See Religious Support for Equal Marriage Rights for an overview of religion and marriage for same-gender couples.

Political Endorsements

When religious organizations become involved in elections, rather than focusing on stating their beliefs about the issues, they are in danger of losing their moral authority, as well as alienating their members. And when elected officials start feeling that they are indebted to a particular religious group, everyone's religious liberty is threatened.

Further Reading

Visit our church/state separation links section.









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