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Religion and Law in the United States Essay

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Updated: Jul 3rd, 2021


In today’s world, diversity and its maintenance have become one of the most severe concerns. In comparison to the previous centuries, people nowadays realize how important it is to respect such other people’s aspects as race, religion, gender, personal preferences, and boundaries. However, though, in terms of celebrating this diversity, some serious implications have appeared. Current governmental bodies feel the need to define the universal mechanism on how to cope with this variety so that no one’s right and freedom is violated.

Religion has remained one of the biggest concerns for the past decades. The First Amendment to the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Levy 1). This statement has become the topic of continuous discussion because people try to realize where the line between the actual religion expression and the law violation is.

The most notorious court cases regarding the amendment are the cases of Sherbert v. Verner and Employment Division v. Smith. There is still an ongoing debate, whereas some people support the idea of free religious expression despite its impact on the legislative system, and others strongly neglect such a concept. The purpose of this paper is to dwell upon this debate considering both cases as well as to define which interpretation and view on freedom of religion are more reasonable.

Sherbert v. Verner

The Sherbert v. Varner court case was one of the first examples of how the physical exercise of religious views can outweigh the word of the law. In this case, a woman, whose religion could not allow her to work on Saturdays, was dismissed from work due to that issue (Pryor and Bailey 295). In a consequence of various examinations, the Supreme Court held that the woman’s exercise of religion exercise did not interfere with legal issues and that nobody could make her choose between religious and employment preferences.

Employment Division v. Smith

Another flagrant and complicated court case was the one concerning a man who worked as a drug counselor in Oregon. The man was a representative of the Native American church that expressed the idea of a possible connection with the Great Spirit through the use of peyote (Holland 12). As soon as Smith’s employers were informed about this situation, the man was dismissed. In the course of the investigation, the Supreme Court stated that as the peyote usage was prohibited by law on the whole state territory, there was no actual violation of the man’s exercise of religious freedom.

Sherbert test

With the rapid emergence of various allegations concerning the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the governmental representatives needed a kind of algorithm of case differentiation. They had to know how to define whether the case was a violation of a person’s exercise of free will or a breach of other laws prescribed in the Constitution. After the rush around the Sherbert v. Verner case, the US legislative system decided to apply to such cases the so-called “Sherbert test” (Holland 12). The main idea of this balancing test was to identify whether, in a specific example, the burden on the individual’s exercise of freedom was more crucial than the one on the other US law. This approach to solving the cases concerning the First Amendment has been regarded as the most justifying way to find the balance between the laws’ boundaries.

The Debate

The ongoing debate over the ways to treat religious preferences legally is especially evident in the examples mentioned above. To make this comparison even more transparent, one may apply the aforementioned Sherbert test to both situations. Speaking of the Sherbert v. Verner court case itself, the analysis has shown that scale favored the individual’s rights. If to delve into the situation, her religious belief not to work on Saturdays violates neither the local nor the state law as a whole.

The arrangement of working hours during the weekends is an individual choice of a company or an employer. Moreover, the situation itself could be solved even though the rearrangement of Saturday working hours within the other workdays. In such a way, it is obvious that the exercise of a person’s freedom is a more pressing concern than the employer’s dissatisfaction with a worker’s disobedience.

However, if to talk about the second court case, the situation is much more sophisticated. First of all, the story includes the consumption of illegal substances. Secondly, Smith previously was a drug user, which made the situation even more flagrant for the rehabilitation center management. Even regarding the fact that the peyote consumption was executed in the context of belief expression, the burden on the overall Oregon law is of a crucial significance.

The use of illegal substances on the state territory is a serious violation that could not only implicate into a job dismissing but even into another full-scale court case. Some people claim, though, that as long as certain actions express the religious will of a person, it should be respected by the local law system. For this reason, the debate over the court decision is still relevant, and all the arguments are rather vague.

Personal Overview

It goes without saying that one person’s freedom ends precisely where the freedom of another individual starts. Tolerant attitude towards any religious representatives is important as long as their belief does not violate the rights and freedoms of other people. Religion and its philosophy will always be objectified due to the fact that it holds a lot of things that cannot be applied to any laws or regularities.

Regarding my point of view, I am firmly convinced that the latter court case about the man involved in drug use is more reasonable for several reasons. First of all, religious preferences should not be seen as a way to avoid legal responsibility for someone’s actions. Drug consumption is a direct legal offense in any context. Secondly, such behavior seriously undermines the values and norms of society because there are people who restrain themselves from drug use because they are afraid of potential law implications. If the country’s Supreme Court allows people to use drugs for some religious purposes, citizenship will turn into continuous chaos.

Last but not least, these actions undermine not only the community but the significance of the law system in general. People will not take the restrictions seriously once lawmakers loosen the criminal responsibility for various cruel activities and drug use in particular.


The connection between religion and law has always been in the center of the various debate, as they seem to represent completely different parts of human existence. The issue became especially vivid a few decades ago when new beliefs started to spread all over the world. The First Amendment to the US Constitution should, by all means, protect human rights and their ability to exercise religion. However, when it comes to openly illegal actions such as drug use, people should carefully define whether the individual oppression, in this case, outweighs the overall state of the world community.

Works Cited

Holland, Wendy. “United States Court of Appeals Second Circuit, Seabrook v. City of New York.” Touro Law Review, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 9-15.

Levy, Leonard W. The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment. The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Pryor, Anita Clark, and Gypsy Cowherd Bailey. “An Indian Site-Specific Religious Claim Again Trips Over Judeo-Christian Stumbling Blocks (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 108 S. Ct. 1319 (1988)).” Florida State University Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 293-322.

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