The freedom to choose and practice your own religion without government interference is a fundamental human right. It's a civil right as well, protected by the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment plainly states that the U.S. government can't make religious laws, and that it can't prevent any citizen from worshiping in a chosen manner.
The Government Can't Choose Your Religion
The U.S. Constitution addresses religion twice. First, it prevents the United States from having a national religion. The law must treat all religions equally, and the government can't tell you which one is right for you. It can't involve itself in religious matters or take sides between one religion and another.
The Government Can't Stop You From Practicing Your Faith
Another part of the First Amendment that addresses religion is the Free Exercise Clause. It deals with citizens' individual rights. The Free Exercise Clause not only gives you the right to practice any religion that suits you, but it also prevents the government from interfering with how you do it. Some exceptions exist, however. If the way you practice endangers others, such as if you wanted to turn snakes loose in the town square or start an untended bonfire in the name of your religion, law enforcement can step in to stop you. Individuals are free to place religious symbols, flags, or statues in their yards. Houses of worship can do the same thing.
Religion Includes Non-Belief
Freedom of religion also gives you the right to not practice a religious faith and to freely express your views about why you've chosen not to. The U.S. Constitution protects atheism and agnosticism. You don't have to believe if you don't want to believe. Most importantly, unlike in some other countries, you don't have to pretend that you believe.
The Law Separates Church and State
The fact that the government can't involve itself in religious matters often seems to contradict the freedom U.S. citizens have to worship as they please. Separation of church and state laws can be confusing for this reason. But when laws forbid organized prayer in public schools or religious symbols in government buildings, the government is not involving itself with religion. Instead, the government is protecting the U.S. Constitution. Forced prayer in schools would violate the civil rights of children who don't want to pray, or those who pray differently. Religious statues on a courthouse lawn would indicate that the government prefers that religion over others. However, the government can't stop you as an individual or a group from openly practicing your religion in school or in a government building.
A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding the right of U.S. citizens to freedom of religion is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a civil rights lawyer.
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