State/Church FAQ

State/Church FAQ

1. What is RFRA?

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a law that allows religious people, businesses, and/or corporations to violate generally applicable laws by claiming that the laws conflict with their religious beliefs. The federal version is written: "Government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person— (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." Many states have RFRAs too, but those three concepts—burden, compelling governmental interest, and least restrictive means—appear in every single RFRA.

Blasphemy laws violate the First Amendment.  They promote religion, specifically Christianity, over nonreligion in violation of the Establishment Clause.  They prohibit speech in violation of the Free Speech Clause.  They violate the guarantees of religious free exercise and free press.  In general, blasphemy laws assault the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of conscience.  

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Critics of the Christian bible occasionally can score a point or two in discussion with the religious community by noting the many teachings in both the Old and New Testaments that encourage the bible believer to hate and to kill, biblical lessons that history proves Christians have taken most seriously. Nonetheless the bible defendant is apt to offer as an indisputable parting shot, “But don’t forget the ten commandments. They are the basic bible teaching. Study the ten commandments.”

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The U.S. Constitution is a secular document. It begins, “We the people,” and contains no mention of “God” or “Christianity.” Its only references to religion are exclusionary, such as, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust” (Art. VI), and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (First Amendment). The presidential oath of office, the only oath detailed in the Constitution, does not contain the phrase “so help me God” or any requirement to swear on a bible (Art. II, Sec. 7). If we are a Christian nation, why doesn't our Constitution say so? In 1797 America made a treaty with Tripoli, declaring that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This reassurance to Islam was written under Washington’s presidency, and approved by the Senate under John Adams.

For an overwhelming part of U.S. history, America's motto was purely secular, "E Pluribus Unum" (From many [come] one). E Pluribus Unum was chosen by a committee of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. Many Americans mistakenly assume our founders chose "In God We Trust" as the motto, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our founders were committed to a secular government. For most of U.S. history, our money was likewise free of religion.

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Are religious holiday displays a violation of the First Amendment?

The most frequent complaint that FFRF receives during November and December concerns religious displays on public property. The majority involve a crèche, or nativity scene, being displayed at a public park, or outside or inside a government building. FFRF has even received complaints about a nativity scene prominently displayed on the front lawn of public schools! We also receive complaints about other religious symbols being displayed on public property, such as menorahs or crosses. Members of the public are shocked to find these displays authorized, supported, and erected by their local, state or federal government entities.

They make us listen to prayer before we eat lunch at public-funded senior centers. Help!

An unfortunately common state/church violation concerns prayer imposed on a captive audience of senior citizens before lunch at public-funded senior centers. This is illegal!

Why do some states require a religious test for public office? Isn't that unconstitutional?

The Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that States cannot impose a religious test for public office, in conformity with Art. VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Is it legal for government offices and public schools to close for Good Friday?

FFRF often receives complaints from the public about government offices and public schools closing for Good Friday.

Is an Establishment Clause violation occurring at government meetings?

One of the most frequent complaints to the Freedom From Religion Foundation from the public over state/church violations concerns government officials opening government meetings with prayer.

A religious group is holding meetings in a public library. What can I do about it?

Like most government property, public libraries are not automatically open for individuals and private groups to exercise free speech. Once a government body chooses to open up library space for use by private groups, either through action (renting out facilities) or through a “library use policy,” there are a number of steps to take to determine if it is inappropriate for a religious group to be using the facilities.


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