Practice REligion Freely

Russian Orthodox Church

The Bill of Rights insures the freedom of individuals to practice their religion. That right is not considered unlimited, however. The freedom to practice religion does not give an individual the right to violate the law..



The Bill of Rights guarantees the free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that someone's religion does not give that person the right to violate societal norms and laws. The basic doctrine was laid down by the Supreme Court in the decision of Reynolds v. United States. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a Mormon for violating a federal law banning polygamy (having more than one wife) in any territory of the United States. In the decision, the Court stated that freedom of religion does not permit every citizen to become a law to himself. The Court has further defined the issue in the cases of Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), in which it upheld the law that required vaccinations; in Bunn v. North Carolina (1949), in which it upheld the law forbidding the use of poisonous snakes; and in McGowan v. Maryland (1961), in which it upheld "blue laws" requiring businesses to be closed on Sundays.

The Supreme Court has held that religions may be required to a have a permit to hold a parade (Cox v. New Hampshire, 1941); that child labor laws must be obeyed (Prince v. Massachusetts, 1944); and even that those who oppose military service on religious grounds can be drafted. In Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), the Court ruled that an Orthodox Jew did not have the right to wear his yarmulke (skull cap) while on active duty.

On the other hand, the Court has issued numerous rulings upholding religious freedom in cases such as Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940). In that case, the court held that a law requiring a license be issued before anyone could solicit money for a religious group was unconstitutional. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Court ruled that Amish school children could not be forced to go to school beyond eighth grade. The Court has also held that a state may not forbid ministers from holding public office ( McDanial v, Paty, 1978).