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010 What is freedom of religion?

10. What is freedom of religion?
You can practice any religion, or not practice a religion.

Many of the earliest Americans followed a religion that was different from the one practiced (or believed in) by the people in government. These early Americans fled (or ran away from) their original countries because they were treated unfairly because of their religious beliefs. When it was time for them to write their own governing document (or laws to create a country) they felt that freedom of religion was very important. Freedom of religion is also sometimes called separation of church and state. Separation of church and state means that religion (also called the “church”) and government (also called the “state”) are separate and independent and should not work too closely together. For example, it is unconstitutional (or against the law) for Congress to make a law that says Americans have to attend (or go to) a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or any other place where people meet for religious purposes. The government also cannot endorse one religious group over another, meaning that the government cannot tell Americans which religion it thinks is the best. Either of these things would violate (or go against) Americans’ freedom of religion.

The United States was one of the first countries in the world to have freedom of religion. Today, this is one of the most important freedoms in the United States. About seventy-five percent of Americans are Christians, but other religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are also practiced by many people in the U.S., while some people don’t follow any religion at all. Because religious freedom is widespread and accepted in most areas and by most people in the country, religious diversity (or the existence of many different religions in the same place at the same time) has become normal in this country. The men who wrote the Constitution and passed the amendments in the Bill of Rights were mostly white, wealthy, Protestant Christians. They would have had no way of knowing how much religious diversity the U.S. would have many, many years later as a result of their creating freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion has always been a controversial topic (or a topic that is often argued over because people have many different opinions). Even in recent years, there have been many legal questions about whether religion belongs in school and in public places. Not everyone agrees on how religion and government should be separated, and the courts continue to change how they interpret (or understand) freedom of religion.


to practice (a religion) – to follow the teachings of a religion; to be part of a religion and do what it tells people to do
* Do you practice Catholicism?

to flee – to run away from something or someone, usually to leave a dangerous or difficult situation; to leave a dangerous or difficult situation
* Thousands of people began to flee the area when they heard that a big hurricane was coming.

governing document – the law or laws that create a country, a business, or an organization, saying what kind of government or management it will have and how it will work
* Have you read the governing document for our new organization?

separation of church and state – the idea that religion and government should be separate and independent, not working together closely
* Because of the separation of church and state, American students do not pray while they are at school.

unconstitutional – against the Constitution; against the law
* It would be unconstitutional for someone to be president of the United States for more than eight years.

to endorse – for a person or organization to support something and say that it is better than other things, sharing that opinion with many people
* This toothpaste is endorsed by the American Dental Association.

to violate – to do something that is not allowed; to break a rule or law; to go against a rule or law
* You violated the law when you drove past the stop sign without stopping.

widespread – common and found in most places or almost everywhere
* There was widespread panic in New York City and much of the rest of the country after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

religious diversity – the existence of many different religions in the same place at the same time
* Our university has a lot of religious diversity, with many Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist students.