Free Exercise

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

~ First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

The beginning of the First Amendment is also referred to as the Free Exercise Clause. It guarantees people the right to practice their religion. But the right to practice religion may be limited as any other right if it harms others or society. While this seems like a clear definition of what is allowed and what is not, it is not always that obvious whether any harm is done.

The Amish

The Amish are a Protestant group which have maintained their simple and rural lifestyle since the early 1700s. Their ancestors originally came from Germany and Switzerland. They reject modern lifestyle and the use of modern technology. To protect their traditions and lifestyle, most Amish live in their own communities, separated from the „modern“ world. The dedication to simplicity is supposed to reflect the connection the Amish faith makes between work and worship. They believe in cooperation rather than in competition and base their life on it.

Since the Amish do not want to be part of the modern United States, an issue that always comes up is whether the laws and rules apply the same for them as for the other (modern) citizens or not. Rumor has it that the Amish do not pay any taxes at all, which is mostly false. They pay taxes (e.g., income tax), but there are taxes that they do not have to pay. The first Supreme Court Case in this article deals with another instance of special treatment and exception from the law that was claimed by an Amish society.

Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)

Jonas Yoder and other members of an Amish community in Green County, Wisconsin, refused to send their children to High School after they finished Middle School (8th grade). The state charged the parents with breaking the attendance law that declares that school attendance is compulsory until the age of 16. The Amish parents pled before the Green County Court that this attendance law violated the free exercise clause in the First Amendment. After losing in the Green County Court, they appealed to the State Supreme Court which declared that this state law obstructs the practice of religious beliefs. The state of Wisconsin did not accept the court’s decision and appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Does the state’s action violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment or can the state enforce a law that clashes with Amish beliefs? The SCOTUS ruled 6 -1 in favor of the Amish parents. The Court acknowledged that the attendance of Amish students at High School would confront the children with a set of goals, values, and attitudes that were contrary to their faith. The Court agreed that being confronted with those values would undermine Amish teachings and could have a harmful impact on the students‘ future. Furthermore, the Court believed that missing one or two more additional years of school would not have negative effects on the health and well-being of the Amish children or prevent them from learning skills necessary to be good citizens. Since the students agreed with their parents about leaving school, the right of the Amish to follow their religious beliefs outweighed the interest of the state mandating school attendance. Once Amish people leave school, they are taught farming, homemaking, and other vocational skills by older members of the community.

Lots of criticism followed this decision. Native American legal advocates criticized subsequent courts for not applying the ruling to Native American religions even though circumstances were similar. Our author would disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder since being confronted with different values and other ways of life is mandatory for being able to decide if the chosen path is the right path. Teaching children vocational skills and values can be possible while they still attend school.

Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878)

George Reynolds was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints (known as the Mormon Church) and resident of the Utah territory. He believed in the teaching and practice of the Mormon Church that polygamy was the duty of all Mormon men. That is the reason why he was married to two wives. In 1794, Congress had passed an act that applied to all territories of the United States prohibiting a man from committing bigamy. Reynolds was tried, convicted and sentenced for violating this act by the District Court of the Third Circuit of Utah Territory. Under the federal law, practicing bigamy was fined up to 500$ (500$ in 1878 equal 12.000$ in 2018) and imprisonment at hard labor for up to five years.

Reynolds appealed to the SCOTUS on February 13, 1878. The question before the Court: Does a person in the United States have the constitutional right to ignore a law passed by Congress when his/her own religious beliefs state that the law is wrong? The justices unanimously affirmed the lower court’s decision. Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite stated:

„Laws are made for the government [control] of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.“

The distinction between beliefs and practice of religious beliefs is significant for the court’s ruling. According to the Court, there can be no legal restrictions on a person’s beliefs. If religious practices violate the law of the land, though, the society will have the right to regulate them. Chief Justice Waite asked the rhetorical question:

Could a man commit murder if his religion approved such a practice?

Waite answered that no law can restrict a person’s religious right to believe in murder but that the government certainly has the right to punish a person for putting such a belief into practice. There have been numerous examples of justifying murder for religious reasons. That is why Justice Waite’s opinion has often been quoted. Anyway, he probably did not think of a future where abortion doctors are killed or federal buildings are bombed in the name of religion.

The discussion of what is protected by the Free Exercise Clause has been going on until today. Since it leaves lots of room for interpretations judges can come to totally different conclusions for the similar case. The separation of government and religion is normally strictly enforced in the United States which includes no benefits for one religion, especially at school. The next article will cover Supreme Court Cases concerning school prayers and religious instruction at school.


You can contact the author at david.berendes@junge-transatlantiker.de.