ACLU History: Protecting Free Exercise

Document Date: September 1, 2010

While the ACLU works to make sure that the government does not promote particular religious beliefs or activities in the public schools or elsewhere, it also vigilantly defends Americans’ freedom to practice their religious beliefs, as well as the right NOT to participate in an activity conflicting with their belief system.

In one of the most significant freedom of religion cases, West Virginia v. Barnette, the ACLU supported Jehovah’s Witness children who declined to cite the pledge of allegiance because they believed that their allegiance should be pledged only to God. The Supreme Court held that:

‘If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.’

The ACLU continues to zealously defend the right of all religious believers to practice their faith.

In the most recent instance of defending religious freedom, in August 2010, the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) joined forces in support of a proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan and issued the following statement:

As the nation’s premier defender of civil liberties, we feel strongly that voices of tolerance and adherence to our Constitution are critical during times like this. Preventing Muslims or any other group from freely practicing their faith is unconstitutional and goes against the very core of American freedom.

Throughout America’s history, almost every religious group, including Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Muslims, has been the target of discrimination. The ACLU has defended the right of all religious denominations

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