November 12, 2019 | Damages Actions Against Federal Agents for Constitutional Violations
|What is Religion?||Important Cases|
|Inevitably when analyzing constitutional questions under the religious clauses the question of “What is considered a religion?” will arise. The Supreme Court has largely steered clear of this issue, instead choosing to accommodate a wide variety of beliefs as long as they are “sincerely held” by the person or organization in question.|
One line of cases on this question are those dealing with who could be exempt from the Selective Service Act – the draft for the military – due to being “conscientiously opposed to war” because of “religious training or belief.” In United States v. Seeger, decided in 1965, the Court broadly interpreted what qualified as “religious training or belief.” The party involved in the case objected to participating in war, but did not believe in a “supreme being” as required by the statute.
The Court held that nontheistic views fell within the definition of religion, and that a sincere and meaningful belief, equivalent to that of someone who believed in God, would fit the definition under the law. The Court upheld this view again in a very similar case, Welsh v. United States, and also added that a belief in God is not necessarily a prerequisite for a religion. It is important to note that these two cases did not explicitly touch on the First Amendment, but instead dealt with statutory interpretation of the Selective Service Act. Still, these cases may provide insight into how the Court interprets religion.
The determination of whether or not a belief is religious has appeared in other Supreme Court cases where the individual has sought religious exemptions to certain laws. The “sincerely held belief” reasoning has been applied there as well. Realizing the potential danger in allowing a court or jury to rule on a person’s religious beliefs, the Court has cautiously kept the decision making as to whether or not the person sincerely holds a belief.
The decision should not consider the religion or belief – only whether or not the person actually believes in it. This was exemplified in the Court’s decision in United States v. Ballard. An organization was indicted for asking for donations in return for curing diseases. The Court held that the jury could rule whether or not the defendant’s had this belief, but not on whether or not they could actually cure diseases. As the majority opinion phrased it, “Men may believe what they cannot prove.” If the Court allowed the jury to actually rule on the religion itself, hostile juries could discriminate and destroy religious liberty.
Even comparisons between what individuals believe compared to others within their own religion do not have a decisive effect on courts decisions in these cases. In Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, the Court held that a sincere religious belief can be claimed even if it was inconsistent with the doctrines of their religion. The Jehovah’s Witness in Thomas was denied unemployment benefits after quitting his job. The man had left his job because they had transferred him to a department making tanks for the military, something which he said he opposed on religious grounds. Despite the fact that other Jehovah’s Witnesses said that working on tanks would have been fine, the Court said this was irrelevant and that the Court would not become “arbiters of scriptural interpretation.”
|United States v. Seeger (1965)Welsh v. United States (1970)|