United States v. Macintosh does not usually appear in the religious liberty canon, but it should. The case involved a Canadian national who emigrated to the United States as a student, was eventually ordained as a Baptist minister, and later joined the faculty of the Yale Divinity School. He returned to Canada in advance of the First World War to serve as a military chaplain on the front. After the war, when he came back to the United States and applied for citizenship in 1925, he was asked, pursuant to Section 4 of the Naturalization Act, to swear that he would agree to bear arms on behalf of his country. He replied that his “first allegiance was to the will of God” and that he could not agree to bear arms categorically, in advance of knowing the particulars. The federal district court denied his petition for naturalization on the ground that he was insufficiently “attached to the principles of the Constitution.” In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Sutherland, the Supreme Court affirmed. Chief Justice Hughes wrote the dissent.
What is wonderful about Macintosh is that in just a few quick and short strokes, the Court sets out the fundamental conflict between allegiance to state and to conscience. All at once it evokes, on the one hand, Gobitis and Barnette, and, on the other, Reynolds, Sherbert, Smith, and Hosanna-Tabor. But the case is not technically a Free Exercise Clause case, and so it is sometimes overlooked. If you are looking for the grand oil masterpieces of the religion clauses, you’re liable to walk right by this unimposing gem of a watercolor.