Question for Lawyers - Freedom of Religion

What religions, and practices of those religions, does America acknowledge? Certainly a religious belief of not wearing a seatbelt (as well as other ridiculous convictions) is prohibited to be practiced here, so I was wondering what line has been drawn in the courts or the laws about what is and is not acknowledged as a legitimate religious practice?

If a religion is found to practice one illegal action such as child sacrifice, does that disqualify the entire religion from religious exemptions, etc. ?


The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment has been interpreted to protect any “sincerely held religious belief” (e.g., United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965).)

There is no hard and fast list of religions. As a general rule, the courts will accept the religious nature of any relatively well-known faith. Historically, the definition was theistic (“one’s views of his relations to his Creator,” Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333, 342, (1890).) Things have since moved on, and the courts no longer require belief in a deity (Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961).) Courts will look more closely at novel religions. A lot of Free Exercise litigation arises in the context of prisons, where inmates frequently find religion. Some of them are presumably sincere; others adopt beliefs that are strikingly convenient, like being required to eat steak three times a day.

Most of the federal courts now basically look at whether the relevant belief system serves the same purposes as better known ones (for example, whether it offers moral teachings or purports to explain the purpose or origin of life and the universe and so on.) Africa v. Pennsylvania is a good example.

No. A religion that promotes child sacrifice is still entitled - assuming it operates as a not-for-profit entity - to collect tax deductible donations. Its members would still be entitled to First Amendment protections. They simply would not be permitted to act on their beliefs concerning child sacrifice. This is a rapidly evolving area of law (regardless less obviously unpleasant practices) as the federal government and a number of states have passed religious freedom restoration acts that require governments to show a compelling interest (not allowing children to be killed obviously qualifies) before prohibiting religiously motivated conduct.