First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

New Jersey Court Decisions on Free Exercise of Religion

compiled by Paul Axel-Lute
last updated March 13,1998
Free-exercise prevails | Governmental interest prevails | Other cases
N.J.Constitution Religion Paragraphs | N.J.Religious Freedom Bill

I. Cases in which free-exercise claim prevailed

Tucker v. Randall, 18 N.J.Misc. 675, 15 A.2d 324 (Sup.Ct. 1940). Set aside the conviction of a member of Jehovah's Witnesses for canvassing without a permit. Decision was based on two grounds: that the complaint was defective and that the conviction "trench[ed] upon" the canvasser's right of free exercise of religion under both federal and state Constitutions.

In re Jackson Name Change, 177 N.J.Super. 591, 427 A.2d 139 (Law Div. 1981). Allowed petition of Robert Jackson, a prison inmate, to change his name to Hakim Abu Shabazz, although it would make it somewhat more difficult to obtain criminal records. "If the dictates of Islam require that a practitioner of that religion obtain a name attuned to it, for this court to deny such person his right because of its strangeness would be to prefer the Judeo-Christian ethic over the Islamic. This the court may not do without depriving petitioner of his constitutionally protected freedom of religion."

Valent v. New Jersey State Board of Education, 114 N.J.Super. 63, 274 A.2d 832 (Ch. Div. 1971). Suit was against required attendance in a "Human Sexuality" course which allegedly conflicted with plaintiffs' religious beliefs. The court denied the State Board's motion for summary judgment, saying the case should go to trial to determine the "extent of the governmental interest in promoting [the course] and whether permitting a student to be excused therefrom will detract substantially from or prevent the success of an essential program. . . . Once it is shown that the state intrudes upon one's religious belief, the state . . . has the burden of showing an overriding need and that it has no other way to satisfy that need."

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church v. City of Hoboken, 195 N.J.Super. 414, 479 A.2d 935 (Law Div. 1983). Held that a municipality could not prohibit the operation of a shelter for the homeless on church premises, because sheltering the homeless is a form of religious conduct. The church was required, however, to comply with reasonable occupancy requirements.

Burlington Assembly of God v. Zoning Board of Florence Township, 238 N.J.Super. 634, 570 A.2d 495 (Law Div. 1989). Having held in an earlier, unpublished decision that a variance must be granted to the church to construct antenna towers for operation of a radio station on its property, the court here held the township liable for violating the federal Civil Rights Act by its refusal to grant that variance. The court found the proposed radio station to be a religious use, protected by both federal and state free-exercise guarantees. ( A later decision in this same case, 247 N.J.Super. 285, 588 A.2d 1297 (Law Div. 1990) awarded nominal damages without further discussion of the religious freedom issue.)

State v. Cameron, 100 N.J. 586, 498 A.2d 1217 (1985). A minister of a Reformed Episcopal Church congregation held weekly services in his home in Franklin Township while the congregation was seeking another location. He was charged with violating a zoning ordinance which did not allow "churches and similar places of worship" in his zone. The majority opinion held the ordinance to be unconstitutionally vague as applied to the defendant. Justices Clifford and O'Hern, concurring in the result, would have gone further and held that the municipality had no power to prohibit worship services in a private home. Justices Garibaldi and Schreiber dissented.

Farhi v. Commissioners of Borough of Deal, 204 N.J.Super. 575, 499 A.2d 559 (Law Div. 1985). Case involved holding of daily prayer sessions and Sabbath and Holy Day services in a rabbi's home. The court, explicitly relying solely on the State Constitution, held that "the guaranty of freedom of worship as set forth by our State Constitution forecloses any use by a municipal authority of its zoning power to prohibit the free exercise of religious activity in the privacy of one's home."

II. Cases in which governmental interest prevailed over a free-exercise claim

Convictions for distributing religious circulars from door to door without having first obtained permission from police department were sustained in three cases: Maplewood Township v. Albright, 13 N.J.Misc. 46, 176 A. 194 (Ct. of Common Pleas, 1934); Dziatkiewicz v. Township of Maplewood, 115 N.J.L. 37, 178 A. 205 (Sup.Ct. 1935); and Semansky v. Common Pleas Court of Essex County, 13 N.J.Misc. 589, 180 A. 214 (Sup.Ct. 1935). In the Dziatkiewicz case the court opined that "men and women engaged in the lofty and idealistic work . . . of spreading their religious conceptions to the public at large, ought to be among the very first to submit to and comply with all reasonable regulations . . ."

South Jersey Catholic School Teachers Organization v. St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus Church Elementary School, 150 N.J. 575, 696 A.2d 709 (1997). Held that "lay teachers in church-operated elementary schools have an enforceable state constitutional right to unionize and to engage in collective bargaining respecting secular terms and conditions," and that requiring the church school to recognize and bargain with the teachers' union did not infringe on the First Amendment free-exercise rights of the church bodies. In this case, decided a few days after the U.S. Supreme Court held the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional, the N.J.Supreme Court stated that it was following the standard set by Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990) (the decision that the RFRA was intended to nullify).

Market Street Mission v. Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards, 110 N.J. 335, 541 A.2d 668 (1988). Held that rooming houses and boarding houses operated by religious organizations were subject to state fire safety provisions, and that those regulations did not unduly interfere with the free exercise of religion.

New Jersey State Board of Higher Education v. Shelton College, 90 N.J. 470, 448 A.2d 988 (1982). Upheld statutes regulating the award of baccalaureate degrees, as applied to a religious college. Finding that "the uniform application of these licensing requirements is essential to the achievement of the State's interest," the Court concluded that "although defendants' freedom of religion may suffer some indirect burden from this legislation, the constitutional balance nonetheless favors the state interest in uniform application of these higher education laws."

McBride v. McCorkle, 44 N.J.Super. 468, 130 A.2d 882 (App.Div. 1957). Held that denial of permission for prisoner in segregation wing of state prison to attend Roman Catholic Mass did not amount to deprivation of his constitutional rights of free exercise of religion. The court noted that "All men in the segregation wing are treated alike; they are not permitted to attend Mass, but they are all afforded visitation by the chaplains of their respective faiths, and in the cases of Catholic prisoners, the opportunity to receive the Holy Sacraments."

Cooke v. Tramburg, 43 N.J. 514, 205 A.2d 890 (1964). Upheld refusal of Board of Managers of state prison to allow collective worship by Black Muslim inmates, based on Board's expert judgment that such collective worship would bring about disruption of prison discipline.

State v. Fass, 306 N.J. 102, 175 A.2d 193 (1961) (4 to 3 decision). Sustained conviction of an Orthodox Jewish merchant for violation of law against "openly expos[ing] to sale" certain categories of goods on Sunday.

Court orders for blood transfusions over the religious objections of Jehovah's Witnesses were upheld in three decisions: State v. Perricone, 37 N.J. 463, 181 A.2d 751 (1962); Raleigh Fitkin-Paul Morgan Memorial Hospital v. Anderson, 42 N.J. 421, 201 A.2d 537 (1964); and John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital v. Heston, 58 N.J. 576, 279 A.2d 670 (1971).

Compulsory vaccination or immunization of school children was upheld against religious-freedom challenges in two cases: Sadlock v. Board of Education of Borough of Carlstadt, 137 N.J.L. 85, 58 A.2d 218 (Sup.Ct. 1948) and Board of Education of Mountain Lakes v. Maas, 56 N.J.Super. 245, 152 A.2d 394 (App.Div.1959), aff'd o.b., 31 N.J. 537, 158 A.2d 330 (1960).

Sexton v. Bates, 17 N.J.Super. 246, 85 A.2d 833 (Law Div. 1951). In an action evidently brought by neighbors objecting to the zoning officer's approval of a mikvah (ritualistic bathing facility) in a residential zone, wherein churches were a permitted use, the court held that the mikvah did not come within the meaning of "church", and that denial of permisson for the mikvah in that zone did not constitute infringement of the right to free exercise of religion.

III. Other Cases

In re Adoption of "E," 59 N.J. 35, 279 A.2d 785 (1971). In this case the Supreme Court reversed a trial court judgment which had denied an adoption to a couple solely because of their lack of religious belief. The trial judge had reasoned that the "child should have the freedom to worship as she sees fit and not be influenced by parents . . . who do not believe in a Supreme Being." The Supreme Court majority noted that "Religion and morality are inextricably interwoven in the lives of most people in this country, and a high moral character of prospective adopting parents is an essential consideration in adoption proceedings. . . . On the other hand, we do not believe . . . that morality lies in the exclusive province of one or of all religions or of religiosity in general. . . . [A] court cannot disqualify some from adopting solely on religious grounds without violating that person's rights to free exercise of his religious beliefs." Justice Weintraub, concurring in the result, condemned any judicial inquiry into the religion of prospective adoptive parents (except in case of an "express stipulation made by a consenting natural parent as to the religious faith of an adoptive parent" or in "the hypothetical case of a child whose prior religious training reached the point where a change of direction might inflict some psychological trauma.") This case does not seem to fall clearly into either of our two main categories; here the First Amendment free-exercise right of the prospective parents (understood to include the right not to practice any religion) prevailed over a putative free-exercise right of the child.

Right to Choose v. Byrne, 91 N.J. 287, 450 A.2d 925 (1982), held that a statute which allowed public funding of abortions only to preserve a woman's life, not her health, violated the right of pregnant women to equal protection under the State Constitution. Only a small portion of the opinion deals with free exercise of religion: the Court rejected plaintiffs' contention that the statute infringed on their free exercise: "It may be, as plaintiffs contend, that for some an abortion represents the fulfillment of a religious duty. That duty, however, cannot serve as the basis for requiring public funding, for to compel facilitation of the exercise of that religious duty may well violate the prohibition against the establishment of religion.". (91 N.J. at 315, 450 A.2d at 939).