When Mormon missionaries first arrived in Denmark in the 1850s, the country had just liberalized its constitution to allow for religious freedom. However, many magistrates and prosecutors were unaware of the change and threatened the missionaries. As academic William Mulder noted, the Mormons knew their rights better than the local authorities. This same need to understand religious rights is still relevant today in the United States, where religious freedom is under attack and people are often under the impression that they cannot even mention religion in public settings.
It is essential to know your rights to religious freedom, just like the first missionaries in Denmark did. The Constitution protects not only the right of people to believe what they choose, but also to worship, share their beliefs, and act in accordance with their beliefs. All of these rights apply to both individuals and groups. The Constitution protects religious freedom in both the private and public spheres.
The right to religious freedom does not disappear when a person enters a public environment, such as a school or government building, when accepting government office or employment, or when running a business open to the public. The government is obligated to protect religious freedom in all of these settings, with very limited exceptions. As with any right, religious freedom is not absolute. While the government may never tell individuals or communities what to believe, it may restrict how they exercise those beliefs in certain circumstances, such as for public safety or to protect the fundamental rights of others.
For example, the government could prohibit human sacrifice even if a religion's teaching approved or required it. All kinds of beliefs influence the political preferences of voters and legislators, including religious ones. The simple fact that a policy coincides with religious teaching or arises from religious values related to good and evil does not make it unconstitutional as long as the policy itself has a secular purpose, does not promote or inhibit religion, and prevents excessive government participation in religion. For example, laws prohibiting aggression are constitutional even if many religious teachings oppose violence.
Similarly, some types of laws that restrict abortion are constitutional even if they coincide with certain religious beliefs. Elected officials have the First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs. However, they cannot use their official capacity to establish a religion by favoring, promoting or discriminating against a particular religion. As long as prayers are not used to proselytize or promote a particular faith or belief it is a good practice to invite chaplains or representatives of various religions including non-Christian denominations to take turns praying and that have a generic content.
The government cannot require any form of religious evidence as a condition for public office or employment. It can require people to take an oath or make a similar statement but it cannot require them to lay their hands on the Bible or any other religious book or use the phrase “God help me” although they can do these things if they want to. Local land use laws such as zoning ordinances cannot prosecute religious organizations for exclusionary purposes discriminate against them or impose excessive burdens on them. An example of government action that would not be allowed is a zoning ordinance that prohibits places of worship and allows non-religious meeting places for clubs or other associations.
Religious organizations are exempt from taxes under all state and federal tax codes. In fact the Constitution may require it since the Supreme Court has suggested that taxing churches would result in excessive participation between church and state. The government cannot grant special privileges or impose special sanctions on any specific religion or religious group show a preference for one religion over another or for atheism. Government property doesn't need to be free of religious references symbols or messages as long as the government doesn't appear to endorse any specific religion.
Whether a particular exhibit is constitutional depends largely on the particular circumstances. Temporary exhibitions such as Christmas displays may contain religious elements if the exhibition as a whole does not promote a religious message or indicate government support for religion. For example a manger along with non-religious Christmas symbols such as Santa and candy canes would probably be allowed but a standalone crib wouldn't be allowed. Permanent exhibits such as monuments may contain religious elements if the purpose and main effects of the exhibition are secular in other words if a reasonable observer would not believe that the government intends to endorse a particular religion.
In general the government must provide religious groups with the same access to public facilities that it provides to other types of groups. For example a state university that organizes a variety of student activities cannot exclude a group of religious students simply because it is religious although other restrictions may apply. Public schools and universities must be neutral with respect to religion; they cannot favor or be hostile to it. Schools have an obligation to accommodate students' exercise of religion unless doing so disturbs discipline or interferes with their rights.