Freedom of religion is one of the most cherished rights in the United States. It’s right up there with free speech, and both of them are enshrined in the 1st amendment of the Constitution. However, just as freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say anything you like free of consequence, freedom of religion doesn’t mean you can use your religious beliefs to justify illegal actions.
Freedom of Religion, and The 1st and 14th Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In simple terms, this part of the 1st amendment means the federal government will not establish a state church, or give preference to one faith over another. It also means that the government will not interfere with a person’s beliefs. The 14th amendment simply extends that protection out to state governments, holding them to the same standards as the federal government.
Here’s where things get confusing for some people, though. You see, the courts have determined that faith is an ephemeral thing; it’s an idea. The government cannot force someone to believe or not believe in a religion. Belief itself is protected. However, that does not mean that actions taken by people of a faith are automatically protected under the law.
In Reynolds V. United States, for example, the Supreme Court upheld a criminal conviction for polygamy. Because, while polygamy was a sincerely held tenet of Reynold’s religion, the act was still illegal under U.S. law. The court’s logic is that, if they allowed the excuse of, “that’s my religion,” then people could justify any act, no matter how criminal. That’s why it is perfectly legal to believe that cannibalism is a source of spiritual power, but performing an act of cannibalism is still a criminal act.
For more information on the 1st and 14th amendments, and how they apply to your daily life, simply contact us today!