THE free exercise of religion is woven into the fabric of American polity. Not only is it written into the Constitution, it's embedded in the folklore and history of this land back to the Pilgrims, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams. Still, the unfettered practice of religion has always been subject to attack, whether from Puritan theocrats or present-day bureaucrats. Its defense requires constant alertness. Following one's religion, especially if that religion represents a small minority, runs the risk of collision with majority beliefs. In the United States the risk is minimized by a democratic system of law and a general climate of tolerance. Over the longer span of history, US courts have shown an encouraging trend toward greater appreciation for religious diversity.
Yet a look at recent law on the subject, as provided in today's Monitor article on ``The right to practice what you preach,'' traces a still unsure course. The Supreme Court has upheld an individual's right to practice religion free of sanction in some instances and turned thumbs down in others. Hence a Seventh-day Adventist who left a job because of refusal to work on Saturday was not deprived of unemployment insurance. A Jewish Air Force chaplain was, however, told he could not wear his yarmulke while on duty. Congress, commendably, has passed legislation that corrects the latter decision.
And the ``free exercise'' cases reaching the courts, springing from such areas of public policy as education and health care, aren't likely to subside.
Judges strive for an equitable judgment, balancing society's needs with the individual's. Where the Supreme Court has seen an alternative to action that infringes on religious beliefs, it has usually chosen it. But the jurist's task remains an extraordinarily delicate one: deciding which religious practices that collide with public or corporate policy are central to an individual's faith, and hence to his constitutional freedoms.
One thing is clear: The burden of proof in these matters should be on government to show why its interest overrides the constitutional guarantee. Not, as has sometimes been the case, on individuals to justify their beliefs.