The Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion in the first amendment. This means that the government can not prevent individuals from practicing their faiths.
However, there are some exceptions. For example, polygamy, the practice of marrying multiple spouses, is not protected in the Constitution.
The Court has also ruled that Amish children are not required to continue their education after the eighth grade. As you can see in these 2 situations, the courts primarily weigh individual rights to freedom of religion against the needs of society.
The Constitution also guarantees that the government can not force individuals to conform to one religion.
This is expressed in the Constitution as the establishment clause which states that the government can not set a state religion. This clause has been very important to create the separation of church and state. However, there have been some exceptions like government subsidies for schools with general religious education.
In order to see if there is a violation of the establishment clause, the court uses the Lemon test. This test was derived from the court case of Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971. They test whether a state action is a violation by testing 3 parts.
The action violates the clause unless it:
Has a significant secular, rather than religious, purpose
Does not have the effect of advancing or discouraging religion
Does not have “excessive entanglement” between government and religion
The debate over the freedom of religion in the first amendment is ongoing. This is represented in the Supreme Court cases of Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972).
This case dealt with a group of Jewish families that sued their children’s school district for having prayer in the classroom. Initially, the New York Court of Appeals upheld the decision of allowing school prayer.
Consequently, the families took the case to the Supreme Court because they believed that the prayer was violating the establishment clause. There was a 6-1 decision that ruled that the school prayer did violate the establishment clause.
This case dealt with the Amish principle that believed the higher education of high school was not necessary to preserve the Amish lifestyle. Wisconsin responded by fining 3 Amish families that took their children out of school in 8th grade.
The families appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the families which led to the state of Wisconsin taking the case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court then again ruled in favor of the families stating that taking their children out after the 8th grade was protected by the First Amendment free exercise clause. This clause reserves the right of American citizens to practice any religious faith or ritual.