Introduction: Religion and the Constitution

Introduction

While no one is burned at the stake any more for their spiritual beliefs and religious civil wars are thankfully a thing of the past — at least in most civilized, democratic nations — it is plain that controversies surrounding religion and its place in modern society still loom large in the minds of many people. This is a problem that confronts American society, the main focus of this course, because of its unique legal relationship with religion. Just what role should religion play, if any, in the public sphere, or is it an activity that this nation’s laws and customs have properly relegated to the private sphere?

Any response to this query seems to raise more questions than it answers. Just what does separation of church and state mean? Where do we draw the line between permitting religious practices and maintaining social order? How exactly does the U.S. Constitution protect religious freedom, anyway? These concerns have engendered much confusion and controversy throughout the history of our country. Informed persons, including justices of the United States Supreme Court, have heatedly disagreed about how one should answer these thorny questions.

This course will allow the student to enter this fascinating area of Constitutional law and become better acquainted with many of the quandaries facing the courts and the nation. It is designed not only to give the participant an introduction into the area of religious legal issues, but it will also help her develop the tools needed to approach the Constitution in the same way as judges when they craft their ruling in religious disputes. To that end, students will become intimately acquainted with the historical meaning of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses and other provisions of the Constitution that from time to time touch upon the concerns of religious freedom. While our main focus will be with the Supreme Court and its historical role in adjudicating this troubled area of the law, there will also be forays into other related issues such as what the Founding Fathers intended for religious freedom when they drafted the First Amendment.

Finally, this seminar will provide a justification for supporting the principle of church/state separation and a narrower interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause. While quizzes and other exercises will be based upon non-controversial, “neutral” knowledge that informed commentators on all sides of the debate can accept, the author will clearly stake out a position in the Comprehensive Module that supports church/state separation and a more equitable view of religious freedom generally.

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