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Free Exercise Clause

One of two clauses in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that address religion. It reads, “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise (of religion).” As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court through several decisions, a person’s right to believe in any religion – or none at all – is absolute, but the government can place limitations on free exercise. The court has ruled that any law that specifically targets a religion violates the First Amendment. The situation is much murkier when a law that is religiously neutral or generally applicable has the effect of interfering with a religious practice or belief. Through a series of rulings in the 1950s and 1960s, the high court determined that governments had to show a “compelling interest” for passing any laws that had an unintended effect of interfering with religious practice or belief. The burden of proving that compelling interest was heavy. But in 1990, the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of “compelling interest,” lightening the government’s burden and requiring little justification as long as the law was not aimed at a specific religion or religious practice. See Establishment Clause.

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