The First Amendment
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The First Amendment religious liberty clauses defined

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...”
First Amendment religious liberty clauses

A tale of two clauses

“The two clauses are essentially one provision for preserving religious liberty. Both parts, No establishment and Free exercise, are to be comprehensively understood as being in the service of religious liberty as a positive good. At the heart of the Establishment clause is the prohibition of state sponsorship of religion and at the heart of Free Exercise clause is the prohibition of state interference with religious liberty.”
The Williamsburg Charter, 1988

“The Establishment clause protects against religion’s intrusion into government, while the Freedom of Religion clause protects against government’s intrusion into religion. Each clause requires the balancing of rights and, for better or worse, the courts generally act as the arbiter. Of note, these clauses and their balancing requirements exemplify the wisdom of their drafters.”
Rick Callister, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, La Cañada, California

No establishment

“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.”
Justice Hugo Black, Everson v. the Board of Education (1947)

“No sponsorship [state establishment of religion] means that the state must leave to the free citizenry the public expression of ultimate beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing only that no expression is excluded from, and none governmentally favored, in the continuing democratic discourse.”
The Williamsburg Charter, 1988

Free exercise

“The door of the Free Exercise Clause stands tightly closed against any governmental regulation of religious beliefs. Government may neither compel affirmation of a repugnant belief, nor penalize or discriminate against individuals or groups because they hold religious views abhorrent to the authorities, nor employ the taxing power to inhibit the dissemination of particular religious views.”
Justice William Brennan, Sherbert v. Verner (1963)

“No interference [with the free exercise of religion] means the assurance of voluntary religious expression free from governmental intervention. This includes placing religious expression on an equal footing with all other forms of expression in genuinely public forums.”
The Williamsburg Charter, 1988

The First Amendment right of conscience

“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”
James Madison's original draft of the First Amendment, 1789

“As is plain from its text, the First Amendment was adopted to curtail the power of Congress to interfere with the individual’s freedom to believe, to worship, and to express himself in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”
Justice John Paul Stevens, Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)

“The Establishment and Free Exercise clauses protect the liberty of conscience of every citizen by providing the legal basis for religious freedom in the United States.”
Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools

“No establishment and Free exercise serve the ends of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. ... The freedom of the government from religious control and the freedom of religion from government control are a double guarantee of the protection of rights. No faith is preferred or prohibited, for where there is no state-definable orthodoxy, there can be no state-punishable heresy.”
The Williamsburg Charter, 1988

The logic of the First Amendment

“Religious liberty is a necessary condition that stands alone, and governmental action is not sufficient to make it exist. The government's primary role is to ensure that this basic right is not infringed.”
Bruce T. Murray

“The Religious Liberty provisions must be understood both in terms of the Framers' intentions and history's sometimes surprising results. Interpreting and applying them today requires not only historical research but moral and political reflection. The intention of the Framers is therefore a necessary but insufficient criterion for interpreting and applying the Constitution.”
The Williamsburg Charter, 1988


“The First Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.”
Justice Hugo Black, Everson v. the Board of Education (1947)

Clauses don't conflict

“The Religious Liberty clauses should not be thought of as at odds with one another — one favoring freedom of religion and the other opposed to an establishment of it. The framers wrote the provision forbidding establishment in order to safeguard the principle of religious liberty. Both clauses secure the rights of believers and nonbelievers alike to be free from government involvement in matters of conscience. Together, they secure religious freedom.”
Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools

“The framers of the Constitution did not intend that the two religion clauses cancel each other out. Any interpretation of the Establishment clause must take into account the Free Exercise clause and vice versa.”
Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools


“The Founding Fathers looked at liberty as inalienable: It can’t be given; it can’t be transferred; it can’t be taken away. It is a natural right. Religious liberty was a guarantee through the right of nature to choose — to choose to be different or to choose to be the same — whatever the choice might be.”
Philip Goff, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.

“Religious liberty is not something you get from the First Amendment; it is something this country recognizes people have by birthright. Many of the framers believed there was a higher authority in their lives than the state, and the state’s role is to protect the rights of individuals to follow the dictates of their conscience as far as possible. This may be the greatest contribution the United States has made to civilization.”
Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.

A ‘fixed star’

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Justice Robert Jackson, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)

“Behind these 16 words – ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ – is a set of core values that Americans of all backgrounds can seize onto. The Founders set to create a lasting republic that could be governed by people of any religious creed. For Madison and Jefferson, religious liberty and freedom of conscience were beyond the powers of government; they were unalienable and untouchable by the state. And so they should remain.”
Bruce T. Murray, author, Religious Liberty in America:
The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective