A Delicate Balance: The Free Exercise Clause and the Supreme Court
Significant Supreme Court Rulings
Reynolds v. United States (1879)
Upheld the successful criminal prosecution of a prominent Mormon for practicing bigamy in Utah.
Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)
In overturning a conviction for disturbing the peace, held that the Free Exercise Clause applies to state as well as federal actions.
Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)
Ruled that the Free Exercise Clause did not give religiously motivated public school children the right to opt out of a compulsory flag-salute ceremony.
West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
Overruled Gobitis and recognized the right not to participate in a flag-salute ceremony based on the right of free speech and worship.
U.S. v. Ballard (1944)
In a case involving a faith healer who claimed to possess supernatural healing powers, ruled that government cannot question the truth or validity of someone’s religious beliefs but is free to examine whether such beliefs are sincerely held.
Braunfeld v. Brown (1961)
Rejected an argument from Jewish businessmen who observed a Saturday Sabbath and opposed a law that required businesses to close on Sundays.
Sherbert v. Verner (1963)
Ruled that a South Carolina unemployment policy forcing an employee to choose between her faith’s Saturday Sabbath and eligibility for unemployment benefits violated the Free Exercise Clause.
Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
Ruled that the Free Exercise Clause exempted the adolescent children of the Old Order Amish from compulsory school attendance laws.
Bob Jones University v. United States (1983)
Rejected a First Amendment challenge to the Internal Revenue Service’s policy of denying tax-exempt status to nonprofit educational institutions that had racially discriminatory policies.
Goldman v. Weinberger (1986)
Ruled that the Free Exercise Clause did not exempt a Jewish Air Force captain from the rule that forbade the wearing of any headgear indoors.
O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz (1987)
Ruled that security considerations provided a reasonable basis for restricting prison inmate attendance at a Muslim religious service.
Employment Division v. Smith (1990)
Upheld the denial of unemployment compensation to two Native American drug rehabilitation counselors who had been dismissed because they had ingested the hallucinogen peyote as part of a religious ritual.
Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)
Ruled that the city of Hialeah’s ordinances on the treatment of animals discriminated against the Santerian faith and its practice of animal sacrifice.
City of Boerne v. Flores (1997)
Ruled that Congress lacks the power to substitute its judgment for that of the federal judiciary on the norms of religious liberty that states must obey.
Locke v. Davey (2004)
Ruled that a Washington state higher education subsidy that excluded those who majored in devotional religious studies was constitutional.
Cutter v. Wilkinson (2005)
Rejected the argument that the portion of a federal religious freedom statute that covers prisoners and other institutionalized persons violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (2006)
Ruled that RFRA protects the right of a small religious sect to import and use a hallucinogenic substance in its religious rituals.
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