Study Guide

Church and State - Future of Religious Freedom

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Future of Religious Freedom

  • Courts' interpretations of First Amendment religious freedom clauses have changed over time
  • Hard to say how they will change in the future
Since the Mormon cases of the 1870s and the Cantwell case of 1940, the Supreme Court has been forced to define the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. At present, the Court has reached a set of broad conclusions. First, there is a big difference between religious belief and religious conduct, and the courts will not excuse violations of government policies and laws even when these violations are defended as religious conduct. Second, a growing amount of public financial support for religious institutions such as schools may be permissible if the aid serves a secular purpose, does not advance religion, and does not excessively entangle church and state. Third, religious encroachments on public schools will not be tolerated. But while a certain stasis has been reached in the Court’s approach to these questions, there is no telling how long it will last. Remember that the Court’s thinking evolved considerably in reaching these positions; on some issues, it came full circle. Moreover, a number of new church-state issues lurking on the horizon may force the Court in new interpretive directions. For example, in 2001, President George W. Bush created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that funneled federal dollars to church-affiliated organizations addressing public needs such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation and domestic violence. Critics have argued that this represents a violation of the establishment clause. And in 2005, a protracted legal battle over the custody and treatment of a brain-damaged Florida woman raised a whole series of thorny questions about medical ethics and the free exercise of religion. In other words, the Court is far from finished in defining the meaning of the First Amendment.

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