Landmark Supreme Court Cases on Religious Freedom


A large chunk of our identity has always been rooted to the foundation of our morality shaped through the lens of our religious affiliations or the lack thereof. It is through these beliefs that we form our worldview and how we interact with ourselves and others on a daily basis. For a long period of time, the U.S. has struggled to attain freedom from religious persecution. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified as the answer to this problem. The First Amendment has provided the basic and fundamental human right of exercising one’s religion. In addition to that, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment extending the coverage of religious liberty from federal to the states and prohibiting any form of discrimination towards any religious group has been ratified into the Bill of Rights. 

With the laws emplaced, America claimed its name as the stronghold of religious freedom although cases of religious persecution still account for four percent (4%) of the discrimination cases filed in America in recent years. But the law of religious liberty has been constantly challenged throughout history and here we are going to discuss the landmark Supreme Court cases that have marked and shaped the religious freedom of the U.S. now. 

Lemon Test

Before we delve into the discussion of cases, let us first define the test that has been the foundational assessment of all legislation concerning religion under the context of the Free Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Lemon Test was derived mainly from the popular case of 1971, Lemon v. Kurtzman, which argued the constitutionality of the statutes (laws of the State) enabling government funding for non-secular and non-public schools. It’s a tripartite test consisting of provisions that should ALL be passed by a federal legislation or statute in order to deem it as non violation of the First Amendment. 

Though it was named after the main plaintiff of that landmark case in 1971, the test was formulated and improved through a series of cases. First is the School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (1963) which established the first condition which is the purpose prong. Under this prong, the proposed legislation or provided law should have a secular purpose. Next is the primary effects doctrine or the second condition which evaluates if a certain legislature promotes or inhibits a religion. This was established by the Board of Education Central School Dist. No. 1 v. Allen in 1968. And last is the excessive entanglement test, the third condition of the lemon test which is the evaluation of the depth of government involvement in terms of the implementation of the law. This was provided by the 1970 landmark case of Walz v Tax Commission of the City of New York. 

Although this test has received a lot of criticisms, it still remains as the main assessment and is used in conjunction with other tests such as coercion and endorsement tests to qualify either the constitutionality or the unconstitutionality of a law. 

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

For the sake of discussion, instead of doing a chronological timeline of events, let’s take a look at these cases from a different perspective — the sector to which it belongs such as political, education, and work or employment. Hopefully through a different flow, we would be able to see how these cases have shaped the history of religious freedom in the U.S.




The “Free Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment states the prohibition against imposed religion. That is no state religion shall be declared upon the land therefore individuals are free to choose and change their religion or a set of beliefs. And in that case, respect shall be given. 

There might be confusion as to why a law is subjected to a discussion in the political context. That is because laws governing the land also govern those who rule and no exemptions are given. And so in discussion in this context, there are three relevant cases. 

First is not directly a case of politics rather is an effect of it. This case also shows the extent of the religious liberty that the Constitution has freely provided every citizen. 

This is the case of Reynolds v. United States in 1879. Under the facts of this case, George Reynold as petitioner, has used his religion as reason for his noncompliance to the federal Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act after he was found marrying a woman while he was still married to his first. Under the mandate of his religion, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or more commonly known today as Mormons, bigamy was tolerated. Following that line of reasoning, he argued that the law was unconstitutional as it violated his First Amendment Rights. 

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously against him as the Court held that the First Amendment protects his belief of polygamy but under the practice of it, the State can regulate it through the use of state laws. 

This shows the extent of religious liberty in that it cannot protect an individual from another law that regulates it. 

The second is the Torcaso v. Watkins which exhibits the violation of the Free Establishment Clause by the very body that should implement the law of the land. In this case, Roy Torcaso was an appointee of the Notary Public’s office of the Government of Maryland but could not serve his role until he declared his belief in God. He filed suit in the Maryland Circuit Court wherein his claims were rejected. Upon appeal, he won his case in a unanimous decision. 

The Court held that this proclamation of belief is a direct violation of the Free Establishment Clause which prohibits the promotion of a religion. Although it was noted that Torcaso could have declined such a position, it was still clear that religious freedom was compromised in this situation. 

As the government of Maryland, the highest body of the state, they should be the ones upholding the rights of every individual to a religion he or she has freely chosen. 

The third case is the McDaniel v. Paty which opened the discussion of clergymen holding a position of power in the government. In 1796 Tennessee, a statute had long been standing which prohibited ministers from serving as legislators. Paul McDaniel who was a Baptist Minister filed his candidacy for the state constitutional convention but was barred and judged disqualified by the Selma Paty. The Chancery Court that first presided over the case ruled the disqualification as a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and McDaniel proceeded to be elected in position. But the Supreme Court of Tennessee held a reverse conviction as the Court stated that the separation of church and state was sufficient enough to justify the restriction. 

The case was then sent to the Supreme Court where Justice Burger who also presided over the Torcaso v Watkins case led the unanimous decision in favor of McDaniel. The Justices concurred that the statute had created a test of religious conviction to be eligible for a position and the burden it sets to choose only either religion or service to the people is a clear violation of the “Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment.


The education sector has the longest list of landmark cases in religious freedom as it was the most powerful tool in spreading religion. A lot of cases had centered around the interweaving of religious practices and beliefs into the educational system. In this specific discussion, we picked three relevant cases to discuss which are not commonly used as examples. 

First is the Engel v. Vitale case which questioned the constitutionality of prayer in school. Under the facts of the case, the New York State Board of Regents enabled and authorized a prayer recitation to be done before the start of each school day. Organizations rallied against this and argued that although it was a nondenominational prayer, it was still a breach of the Establishment Clause. The Court of Appeals rejected their claims but the Supreme Court ruled a 6-1 decision in favor of the organizations represented by Engel. According to the Court, the use of a school system to include and facilitate prayer recitation violated the religious freedom right and also it took note that the government in the form of the state board is prohibited from involving itself in such manners. Although the dissenting opinion stated that no violation was made as there was no “official” religion that has been promoted. 

Second is the Minersville School District vs Gobitis. This was a landmark case that showcased the ruling of the Court in favor of the secular over the religious freedom. In an 8-1 decision of the Court, it upheld the importance of flag salute which has overridden any religious conviction. In 1935, Lillian and William Gobitis were expelled from the Pennsylvania public school as they refused to salute to the flag under the premise of the mandate of their religion which forbade them to do such action. 

The reason for the ruling in favor of the Minersville School District is that national unity was the basis of national security and this was a matter that cannot be placed under religious rights issues. Although a powerful dissent made by Harlan Stone which made precedent in the following similar cases. In writing, he explained that the freedom of an individual to think and to say is the very liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. 

The third and last case for this discussion is Wisconsin v. Yoder case which brought to light the question of when does religion trump education.  In the Amish religion, kids were sent for a year or two in different parts of the world as part of their religious education thus Amish parents refused to send their kids after eighth grade which was in sharp conflict with the educational attendance required by the State of Wisconsin for kids under age 16. 

The Court ruled unanimously in favor of Yoder stating that the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights is far more important than the State’s rule. Furthermore, this is a fundamental conflict in religious conviction and also an additional year or two spent in highschool would not result in any benefits of public education that the state cited to justify this law. 

Work or Employment

In the discussion of religious liberty in this context, it is important to take note of another law which is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This federal provides protection from any discrimination against the following classes: race,color, national origin, sex, and religion. This covers the term, condition, and privilege of employment. Title VII is applied to all private and public employers with fifteen (15) or more employees as well as to employment agencies and labor unions and is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

In the analysis of workplace discriminations, religious discrimination has been identified as the most rampant type of discrimination. Numbers have been constantly increasing but experts noted that this increase is not a symptom of a worsened state of discrimination rather the laws emplaced may have properly helped in putting a balance and employees have grown assertive of their own beliefs. Not to mention the fact that the workplaces have also been increasingly diversified. 

Again, three cases will be discussed in this context. 

First is the case of Braunfeld v. Brown which discussed the extent of religious liberty in terms of employment. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the existing Pennsylvania state law which required certain businesses to close on Sundays was no violation of the First Amendment. The facts stated that Abraham Braunfeld who represented the Orthodox Jews in this case had argued that as business owners who had to follow the mandate of religion to observe Sabbath on Saturday, the imposed Sunday closing would greatly affect their businesses. The district court dismissed the case but upon Appeal, the Supreme Court heard the case. 

This specific case has relied on the ruling in the aforementioned Reynolds v. United States case to demonstrate the legislative restrictions regulating religious liberty. In explanation, the Court held that there was no interference of any sort to a person’s religious practice as the law was neutrally applied and it followed the government’s mandate to set a day for rest – a law that regulated a secular activity. 

Second is the Sherbert v. Verner case which was also the case of Sabbath observance except this one is on the employee perspective. In this case, Adeil Sherbert was fired from her job and denied unemployment benefits as it was ruled that the grounds of her discharge was upon a valid work related infraction which was refusal to work on her Sabbath. The Court ruled in majority in favor of Sherbert wherein they expressed that unemployment benefits eligibility on the basis of “forcing” an individual to somehow not properly observe key religious practices was a violation of the Free Exercise clause. The dissent that came from two judges stated that the effect of this favored ruling towards a religious conviction would set precedent to all other related cases and would lead South Carolina to impose laws regarding this. 

In times today with the strengthened anti-discrimination laws, accommodation has been presented as an alternative solution to these problems wherein employers are encouraged to make feasible arrangements with employee in order to make a compromise and avoid discrimination. With the use of accommodation, the employer can provide alternative setups such as staff swap, staggered work hours in order to make up for the “lost day” at work, or a different work schedule – putting the Sabbath as the designated rest day. The employee can also provide his or her options to the employer and can be a ground for discussion. 

The third and last case is the Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. The issue here is the use of peyote, a powerful hallucinogen, as part of the religious ceremonies as members of the Native American church which was in direct conflict with their positions as counselors for a private drug rehabilitation organization. This led to them getting fired and like Sherbert, their benefits were denied as the reason for their dismissal at work was misconduct. The State Appellate court ruled against the denial of benefits as it was a violation of free exercise of religion. There was a bit of conflict here in terms of the consumption of illegal drugs used for sacramental religious purposes and the Free Exercise Clause. 

In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of the Department of Human resources citing the same ruling of legislative regulation in terms of state laws to religious liberties such as the case in Braunfeld v. Brown which was discussed earlier. Furthermore, the Court noted that allowing such exceptions to state laws would open the state in a vulnerable position of requiring exemption laws of every kind to cover all of the religious convictions there are. 


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