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Legal Status of Religious Groups in the US (1999)
Monday, February 01, 1999

The United States does not require religious groups to register with the government in order to organize, meet, collect funds, or claim federal tax-exempt status. Such a registration requirement would violate a core freedom guaranteed by the United States Constitution. This overview identifies the underpinnings of this freedom, including a discussion of the United States Constitution's religion and speech clauses. Following this discussion, the issues of association, legal status and tax exemption are addressed.

Foundational to civil liberties inthe United States is the principle that government was created by and exists at the will of the people. Governmental power is a limited power conferred to the government by the people. In the United States, the fundamental rights of the individual are paramount and they may only be abrogated by the government under very limited and defined circumstances.

Freedom of religion is a fundamental,  natural, and absolute right, deeply rooted in the American constitutional system. Available to all, citizen and non-citizen, the free exercise of religion includes the tight to believe and profess whatever religious belief one desires. Government officials may not compel any person to affirm a religious belief or punish the expression of religious doctrine deemed by officials to be false. The individual's freedom of conscience embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. This fundamental right was established by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the first of the original Bill of Rights.

Specifically, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States forbids the government to make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. While originally an inhibition to action by the United States Congress only, the First Amendment has been made applicable to the individual state governments, as well, through the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.The First Amendment guarantees that the government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion, or otherwise act in a way which establishes a state religion.

This constitutional constraint on the government's ability to enact legislation regarding religion has two primary aspects. First, the government is prevented fromenacting a law that requires citizens to accept a particular religious belief. Second, this constitutional provision safeguards the free exercise of each person.'s chosen for of religion. These two interrelated concepts are known, respectively, as the "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses.

A Russian translation of the text is available here.

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