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Free Exercise of Religion

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment states in pertinent part that “Congress shall make no law[…] prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” Courts have made clear that a claimant’s right to religious free exercise is only protected when the claimant has a sincerely held religious belief and the government’s action is a substantial burden on the claimant’s ability to act on that belief. Accordingly, to be protected under the free exercise clause, a belief system must be (1) “sincerely held” and (2) “religious.” A claimant has the burden of proof as to both of these elements.

To be “sincerely held,” the belief system must occupy a sincere, meaningful place in a claimant’s life. See. United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 185 (1965). This is generally a question of fact, and is essentially a credibility assessment. Does the individual not only talk the talk but also walk the walk? Does the claimant participate in the wrong he or she condemns? Is it an illusory belief system? These are the questions the Court will consider when determining sincerity.

As for what is “religious,” the U.S. Supreme Court has never fully tackled that question. However, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals addressed this difficult question and listed a few things to consider when determining when something is a “religion”: (1) whether it addresses ultimate questions concerning fundamental or imponderable matters; (2) whether it is comprehensive in nature and has a systematic belief system; (3) whether it can be recognized by the presence of structural or external signs. Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197, 208 (3d Cir. 1979) (Adams, J., concurring). Emphasis is also placed on whether an alleged belief system is similar to “traditional” religions.

It should be made clear that Courts generally will defer to a claimant and tend to find that there is a sincerely held religion. For obvious reasons, Courts don’t want to be in the business of inquiring into the odds and ends of a person’s ethos and scrutinizing religion (defined in large part by faith) with cries of non-sequitur logic.

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