The complicated relationship of religion and government predates the founding of the United States. The Founders grappled with this dilemma for years before compromising on the final language of the First Amendment. Even then, the issue was far from settled: the US has struggled since its founding to reconcile the right of religious freedom with the reality of governing a pluralist democracy with an increasingly diverse population.
Today, a struggle over the scope of religious freedom is taking place in politics, the courts, and across American society. Claims of religious freedom are increasingly receiving preferential treatment in both political discourse and in the courts when religious beliefs come into conflict with other rights. That is particularly true for women’s reproductive rights and the rights of individuals to non-discrimination on the basis of their sexual identity.
At the same time, a controversy has emerged over the meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, in which recent Supreme Court cases have pitted the prohibition on establishment of religion against the right of religious free exercise. The central question over religious rights today is how to strike an appropriate balance between rights when they come into conflict. This question has troubled the American Republic since its formation.