I could probably come up with a logical argument as to why individual religious beliefs and patterns of behavior should be protected in the same way as those which belong to a "recognized" religion, but I'm wondering what kind of case law exists on the issue. I'll separate this into two questions.

  1. There are many cases where an individual practices a form of Christianity which is different from a generally agreed upon profile of the religion. For instance, essentially no Christian follows the idea that women are not allowed to speak in Church. It seems common for the layperson to argue that such "hypocrisy" precludes a person from being protected by the first amendment. What does the case law say on this?

  2. Related to this, if a person happens to have an individual religious belief which again differs from the general profile of what is considered to be Christianity, is that belief still protected?

It would seem that protection of religion would be on an individual basis. In other words, so long as a person holds a specific religious belief or follows a specific religious pattern of behavior, then regardless of what religion with which the person identifies, the person would be protected in the exact same way as if the person somehow managed to "perfectly" match an expected profile of a given religion.

  • I do not want to hijack this question but I think a relevant and important issue inherent in this question is: What limits, if any, do "sincerely held religious beliefs" (SHRB) have? By this I mean does a SHRB legally allow you to hit your children with a stick (Proverbs 23:13-14) as long as you do not kill them? – O.M.Y. Apr 3 '17 at 3:19
  • This should be its own question, though it is probably already answered, as there is plenty of case law on this. – Daniel Goldman Apr 3 '17 at 15:53

See Holt v. Hobbs 574 U.S. ____ (2015) and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby 573 U.S. ____ (2014):

Under RLUIPA, the challenging party bears the initial burden of proving that his religious exercise is grounded in a sincerely held religious belief

The test is ignorant as to whether the person's belief happens to match an "expected" profile of a particular religion, although if it did, that would go some way to establishing that the belief is a sincerely held religious belief.

In Holt v. Hobbs, Gregory Holt requested that he be allowed to grow a 1/2 inch beard in prison. In oral argument, Justice Scalia noted that

the religious requirement is to grow a full beard [...] I mean, you're still violating your religion

Counsel for Holt responded:

Well, the religious teaching is a full beard. He testified that religiously half an inch is better than nothing. [...] A partial beard is better than none. And that's not just in secular terms. That's also in religious terms.

The court ruled in favour of Holt. That his belief differed from the strictest interpretation of the religious text was not relevant.

  • 1
    I would also like to point out that this is the standard for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (at least the hobby lobby case). These laws expand your freedoms beyond what the constitution guarantees. The standards for protection under the first amendment are much more nuanced and a law review article would be the best source of information. – Viktor Sep 3 '15 at 19:54
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    So I guess one could say that, no matter what your religion is, no matter if it's entirely different from any existing religion, whether it differs slightly or substantially from an existing religion, etc so long as it is your religion, it is protected, but the burden of proof becomes substantially more difficult if it does not fit an "expected profile." – Daniel Goldman Sep 3 '15 at 22:47

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