OGDEN -- Americans treasure their freedom of speech and freedom of religion, along with the ability to deny both to people they don't like.
So Dan Mach, director of Freedom of Religion for the American Civil Liberties Union, told an audience at Weber State University on Wednesday.
Credit for the paraphrased joke goes to the late American humorist Mark Twain.
"We are one of the most religious nations in the world, simply because our government does not control religion," Mach said. "Freedom of religion is one of our defining fundamental principles."
Yet the courts, from the local level through the U.S. Supreme Court, have been forced to rule on countless cases regarding the rights of people to worship as they wish, and on governmental agencies that attempt to limit people's religious freedoms.
Mach cited a series of cases, beginning with one in the Utah Territory:
* In the 1878 case, Reynolds v. the United States, George Reynolds, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was charged with bigamy under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act after taking a second wife. Reynolds argued polygamy was an integral part of his religion and thus a protected constitutional right under the First Amendment.
Reynolds lost after the Supreme Court ruled that beliefs were protected, but illegal acts were not.
* A multitude of Supreme Court cases have been brought by Jehovah's Witnesses, and rulings have protected the right for all to speak freely in public places (including preaching on street corners) and to refuse the public school mandate to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag, among other things.
"They contributed a lot to the freedoms we all enjoy today," Mach said of those cases.
* Mach also cited a case of an incarcerated American Indian who did not want to cut his long hair to fit prison regulations. The man and his tribe considered their long, uncut hair a tribute and connection to tribal ancestors. The prisoner's religious rights were reaffirmed by the courts.
In another case involving American Indian complainants, men were fired for smoking peyote away from their job, then were denied unemployment benefits.
The men argued smoking peyote was a key part of their historical religious practices. In an out-of-court settlement, the men got their unemployment benefits restored and their ACLU lawyer fees were paid.
Mach talked about the case of an Idaho girl, a member of the LDS Church, who wanted to wear T-shirts bearing Book of Mormon verses. School officials objected, and the girl ultimately lost her court case.
Religious freedom cases involving dress codes are hard to win, Mach said.
"If a student wants to express her faith, we support that," Mach said of the ACLU. "If the government requires her to express religious faith, we don't support that."