Freedom to Exercise Religious Beliefs

If you’ve ever been compelled to advocate an idea outside the classroom that conflicts with your religious beliefs, if you’ve ever been subject to punishment because your beliefs are outside the mainstream of the campus community, or if you’ve ever been forced to participate in a program that actively opposes your religious values, your First Amendment rights may have been violated. In most circumstances, public universities cannot compel students to hold certain beliefs, advocate views publicly, or engage in programs that violate their Christian conscience.

The freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs is enshrined in the First Amendment, which declares in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .”21 The italicized clause—commonly known as the Free Exercise Clause—safeguards the freedom of citizens to practice their chosen form of religion.22  The Free Exercise Clause protects the religious beliefs and practices of persons regardless of whether their “religion” is based on a belief in God or whether they would even consider themselves “religious.”23   Furthermore, the fact that one’s views differ from those of their church or that one does not belong to an “organized” religious group at all does not limit a person’s free exercise rights.24

The Free Exercise Clause offers varying protections depending upon whether the government action at issue infringes upon the citizen’s beliefs or actions. The Supreme Court has made clear on several occasions that—under the Free Exercise Clause—the freedom to believe and profess one’s religious doctrine is absolute.25  This means that a public university may not regulate religious beliefs, compel affirmation of religious beliefs, punish the expression of religious doctrines, impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or status, or lend its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious authority or theology.26  Hence, the Free Exercise Clause bars a public university from forcing students to change their religious beliefs or from insisting that all students adopt a specific campus orthodoxy, such as “multiculturalism” or “diversity.”27

The freedom to act on one’s religious beliefs, however, is not unlimited. The Free Exercise Clause permits public universities—and other government bodies—to enact rules and regulations that incidentally interfere with religious practice, as long as such measures are both “neutral” towards religion and “generally applicable” to members of the university community.28  So, the university cannot directly restrict religion or target it by enacting measures that specifically mention religious practices, that are motivated by antireligious bias, or that affect religious practice alone.29

Moreover, even “neutral” and “generally applicable” university rules will almost always be unconstitutional if they affect religious liberty and other First Amendment rights, such as the freedoms of speech and association.30  This is significant because virtually all campus policies and/or actions that inhibit religious practices will likewise affect other First Amendment liberties.31  So, if a public university sought to enforce a speech code against a student on the grounds that his proselytizing was “offensive,” that university action would implicate both the free exercise of religion and the freedom of speech and would thus likely be found unconstitutional. Indeed, the unity of free speech, free association, and the free exercise of religion severely limits university officials’ ability to regulate campus religious practice at all.32

There is one important, final, caveat. Professors often ask students in classroom exercises to play “devil’s advocate” or to watch or read materials that religious students may find offensive.  Professors do have the academic freedom to challenge students in that way, and there is no right to participate only in assignments you agree with. In short, sometimes you do have to play “devil’s advocate” in a classroom context.  They do not have the freedom (or authority), however, to make you express contrary points of view outside the classroom, such as in letters to legislators. Moreover, they cannot punish you merely because you believe that an assignment or point of view is morally repugnant.

In short, the underlying protection behind the Free Exercise Clause is one of nuetrality. A university that treats religious students, faculty, or student organizations differently than their secular counterparts does so at its own peril.


Compelled Participation


Student Stories

Larinda J King

Foot washing considered hazing at Savannah State University

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