Home The Supreme Court Issue of Freedom of Religion Explained

Issue of Freedom of Religion Explained

Issue of Freedom of Religion Explained

The relationship between the Supreme Court and religion in the United States is complex and multifaceted. Over the years, the Court has issued numerous decisions related to the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, grappling with questions of how to balance individual religious freedom with other societal interests. In this article, we will examine some of the most significant Supreme Court cases related to religion, exploring how the Court’s decisions have shaped religious practice and policy in the United States.

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

One of the most significant Supreme Court cases related to religion is Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case that addressed school prayer. The Court held that a New York State law requiring public schools to recite a prayer at the start of each school day violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This decision has had significant implications for school prayer policies across the United States, establishing the principle that public schools must be neutral with respect to religion.

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)

Another significant Supreme Court case related to religion is Lemon v. Kurtzman. This 1971 case addressed the constitutionality of statutes in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island that provided state funds to private schools, including religious schools. The Supreme Court established a three-part test for determining whether such aid is constitutional, known as the “Lemon test.” This test requires that the statute have a secular purpose, that its primary effect be neither to advance nor inhibit religion, and thatit not entail excessive entanglement with religion by the government.

Employment Division v. Smith (1990)

Employment Division v. Smith was a 1990 Supreme Court case that involved a challenge to an Oregon law prohibiting the use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, in religious ceremonies. The Court held that the law did not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. This decision significantly limited the scope of religious exemptions from generally applicable laws, leading to criticism from some religious groups.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018)

One of the most recent Supreme Court cases related to religion is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This 2018 case involved a Colorado baker who refused to design a cake for a same-sex wedding, citing religious objections to same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated the baker’s religious rights by demonstrating hostility toward his religious beliefs. This decision has been debated by legal scholars, with some asserting that it could lead to broader exemptions for religious individuals and organizations.


The Supreme Court has played an important role in shaping religious practice and policy in the United States. The cases discussed above represent just a few examples of the many cases that the Court has heard related to religion. Through its decisions, the Court has established important principles related to religious freedom, including the need for neutrality in schools and the limits of religious exemptions from generally applicable laws. As such, it is important that we continue to engage with the Court’s decisions related to religion, to ensure that we strike an appropriate balance between religious freedom and other societal interests.

1990 Supreme Court decision of the case of Employment Division v. Smith addressed the application of the right to freedom of religion, as guaranteed under the First Amendment, to otherwise illegal acts. The opinion of the Supreme Court was that states had the power but not the obligation to allow criminal acts in order to honor the principle of religious freedom.

In this way, the Supreme The court allowed the State to deny unemployment benefits to the person making the appeal and struck down the opinion of the Oregon Supreme Court that this action violated the Constitutional right to freedom of religion. The complainant, Alfred Smith, had been employed by the State of Oregon as a drug rehabilitation counselor. His superiors dismissed him upon learning that he had used a controlled substance, peyote, in the course of a ceremony performed in the religion he practiced. The State then withheld unemployment benefits to Smith on the grounds that his own misconduct had cost him his position.

The State Court of Appeals found against this decision on the grounds that the peyote usage was protected under religious freedom and found support in this decision from the State Supreme Court. Oregon thus submitted an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that the right to freedom of religion did not apply to either the initial dismissal of Joseph Smith or the later denial of benefits to him. The case then turned to the broader question of the constitutionality of Oregon’s laws on drug usage. The Supreme Court found that the Oregon law used to make the decision against Alfred Smith did not violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion in that it was generally aimed at the usage of such substances by citizens and did not specifically address the religious purposes to which they might be put.

The law in this way could not be said to be aimed at Alfred Smith’s religious freedom to practice his faith in a general sense, but rather to a specific way in which he decided to practice it. In this way, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court held that it could be reasonably sure that the Oregon law was not overtly aimed at giving the State the ability to violate the freedom of religion. It was instead, according to the Court’s opinion, a “neutral law of general applicability”.

The Court has upheld this principle in regards to claimed violations of religious freedom in a number of cases extending beyond the subject matter of narcotics. In a well-known example of the limits which maybe placed on the freedom of religion, the practice of polygamy among Mormons, as was once common, has been strictly forbidden. In the case of Employment Division v. Smith, the Court thus advised the complainant to seek the passage of laws allowing for the consumption of peyote for religious purposes, noting that such laws had already been passed elsewhere, while upholding the ability of the State to enforce the laws in their present state.