The Free Exercise Clause is the part of the 1st Amendment that reads like this (in bold) - "Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof." The rights that are guarded by this part of the 1st Amendment are among the rights held most dear by all Americans.
The Free Exercise Clause prohibits Congress from making laws that interfere with the expression of Americans' religious beliefs. For example, Congress cannot make laws telling you when to pray, what day to go to church or who you have to pray to. Instead, this clause guarantees that you have the right to make these choices according to your own conscience.
The Free Exercise Clause was added to the Bill of Rights because of the abuses of this right by various English and colonial governments of the past. Some colonies, for example, required Sunday church attendance. There were fines imposed for non-participation.
The courts generally did not address this issue until after the civil war, when in 1879 it heard Reynolds vs. United States, a case in which a Mormon polygamist claimed that his right to polygamy was guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause, even though there was a federal law against it. Most cases before the courts in regard to this clause have had something to do with a minority religious group practice of some kind of behavior that was not acceptable to the general public.
In Reynolds vs. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could regulate religious practices, but not religious belief, as long as the laws passed were not specifically targeting religious groups. In other words, a neutral law such as one prohibiting polygamy in all cases to everyone, is not specifically targeting Mormons who believe in the practice. Instead, it is a general law affecting everyone, and only incidentally affects some Mormons who choose to practice this behavior.
Free Exercise Clause - Jehovah's Witnesses
Dozens of Supreme Court cases have been examined concerning the practices of Jehovah's Witnesses. Various municipalities have tried to regulate Jehovah's Witnesses' practices with methods such as requiring them to be licensed by the municipality in order to distribute pamphlets, passing anti-littering ordinances aimed at Jehovah's Witnesses' tract distribution and expelling children who would not say the Pledge of Allegiance. In most cases, the Court has ruled in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses, thus strengthening the rights of all religious groups to practice their religious beliefs, and weakening the governments ability to punish them or force them to do things against their conscience.
Free Exercise Clause - Compelling Interest
For many years the Supreme Court has used the "compelling interest" standard to judge Free Exercise cases. The "compelling interest" standard means that the state must have a very compelling interest in regulating some religious practice in order to be allowed to do so. So, with this standard governing the decisions, the Court has ruled that the state cannot deny unemployment benefits to a Seventh Day Adventist who refused to work on Saturdays according to her belief, and that the Amish could not be required by law to send their children to school after the eighth grade. The Court ruled that the state had no compelling interest in prohibiting these practices.
On the other hand, the Court has ruled that the state did have a compelling interest in making the Amish pay taxes, in denying tax-exempt status to a religious college that denied students based on their race, and in requiring a Jewish army officer to wear regulation headgear when he wanted to wear a yarmulke.
Free Exercise Clause - The Religious Freedom Restoration Act
In 1990, in Employment Division vs. Smith, the Court ruled that an American Indian substance abuse counselor was justly fired from his position because he used a hallucinogenic drug called "peyote" in religious ceremonies. He was fired because using drugs is against the law. The defendant claimed that the Free Exercise Clause gave him license to this habit and that his free exercise of religion rights were being violated. The Court disagreed concluding that the state's interest in reducing drug usage was not specifically targeting this man's religious beliefs.
This case caused outrage from various religious groups across America and from Congress. Many people believed the Court was taking a stricter stance against religious practices and that this precedent could open the door for tighter regulation of all religious groups.
Congress even passed a law called the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" in 1993 in response to this ruling. The Act would have given greater protections to the practices of religious minorities. The Court struck the entire law down in 1997 concluding that Congress had usurped the Court's authority to interpret the Constitution.
This link will take you to the First Amendment Center for further research.
If you would like to read about the meanings of each amendment, go to the First Ten Amendments page here.
Read about other clauses of the First Amendment:
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Learn about the 1st Amendment here.
Learn about the 2nd Amendment here.
Learn about the 3rd Amendment here.
Learn about the 4th Amendment here.
Learn about the 5th Amendment here.
Learn about the 6th Amendment here.
Learn about the 7th Amendment here.
Learn about the 8th Amendment here.
Learn about the 9th Amendment here.
Learn about the 10th Amendment here.
Learn more about the Bill of Rights with the following articles: