The 13th amendment ending slavery and involuntary servitude, which has a big "except" for allowing it as a punishment for crimes. The 1st amendment has no exceptions listed though. It also has several rights squeezed into it: speech, press, religion, protest. So any threat to 1 right within it should rightly be considered a threat to the others.

How can any restriction on worship gatherings be legally justified given the 1st amendment? Are there any legal precedents?

Full disclosure: I am an atheist. It absolutely makes sense, from a public health and safety perspective, to put restrictions on large gatherings of any sort, for worship or otherwise. However, given the language of the 1st amendment -- and it being the legal shrine of multiple freedoms -- it seems hard to justify and a dangerous precedent from a legal perspective to enact any laws or rules abridging worship of any kind.

  • 1
    Pro tip: If you remove the first and third paragraph this question will probably be received better. Oct 10, 2020 at 22:59

3 Answers 3


The First Amendment is never interpreted as a complete prohibition against laws that could affect a religion, nor is it interpreted to mean that you can say or write anything whatsoever that you want. You cannot sacrifice humans when in the name of a religion, and you cannot sacrifice (murder) humans for fun. One part of the First Amendment regarding religion is the Free Exercise clause which says that you cannot prohibit the exercise of a religion, and another, the Establishment Clause, prohibits favoring a religion, or favoring religion over atheism. The clauses about free speech also do not mean that you can commit fraud and you cannot threaten people's lives.

What decides how far the government can go is "strict scrutiny", a doctrine that limits the extent to which the government can infringe on fundamental rights – First Amendment rights are the canonical example of a fundamental right. The main hurdle that a law so scrutinized has to pass is that the law is necessary for a compelling government interest. Preventing massive deaths is generally seen as such an interest. Then, the law has to be narrowly tailored to affect "just those cases", and it has to be the lest restrictive means of accomplishing that end. Although the prevention of massive deaths is a compelling government interest, a government might screw this up in their legal arguments, as they seem to have done in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, where mass political protests were allowed but smaller religious meetings were prohibited. The government essentially "waived" that compelling interest, replacing it with an interest in preventing church meetings, which is plainly a violation of the First Amendment – they substantially burdened religious practices.

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    Shorter: Content neutral restrictions on the time, place and manner of expressive conduct rarely violate the First Amendment.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 10, 2020 at 22:19

It depends on what else is restricted. As a rule, a blanket ban on gatherings, whether religious or not, is constitutional. A ban on specifically religious gatherings is not.

This has been a particularly sore point where mass demonstrations, especially by Black Lives Matter activists, have been permitted, but religious gatherings under similar conditions have not.

This article in the Volokh Conspiracy blog contains extensive quotes from one recent judgement on this point.


Freedom of religion is not the only human right in the whole Constitution or anywhere else to follow.

Imagine a vampire sect practicing human sacrifices. It may well be a fully defined religion, complete with scriptures, church hierarchy and books to follow, written black on white this is the absolute requirement plus thousand years of history. Absolutely nobody would care about they "religious freedom" because the right to life is more fundamental. The sect would not be permitted to sacrifice even own members with they full approval, leave alone bystanders.

The only question here, if the given practice reasonably endangers people or not under the given situation. But this is not left to the believers to decide, this is something that must reflect the generic consensus of the whole society. And, likely, there is no more fair way to get this reflection than to follow the decisions from the democratically elected government.

  • Incursions into the right to practice religion are generally evaluated on a strict scrutiny basis, the test you're suggesting sounds more like a rational basis test. Could you provide a precedential case that suggests that a law can infringe on religion if the practice "reasonably endangers people?" Sep 28, 2021 at 20:17

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