Religious Freedom in America

I have been reading this collection on “Religious Freedom in America,” edited by Allen Hertzke. The authors cover the subject from a number of perspectives, including Thomas Kidd and Vincent Philip Muñoz with perspectives on the Founding, and important contributions from the Sikh and Muslim traditions, which are not often heard in these debates.

There is also an empirical essay of particular interest for those trying to figure out the current state of religious freedom. America post-Smith has a welter of “mini-RFRAs” establishing balancing tests meant to offer more protection to religious exercise than a “rational basis” standard. The results are not encouraging. Professors Robert R. Martin and Roger Finke collected thousands of religious liberty cases and coded them according to various metrics. One metric was how often courts invoked a “compelling” government interest in considering a religious liberty claim. In an earlier post, I had noted the relative lack of detail in judicial opinions concerning what constitutes a “compelling” interest in federal law that, along with the least restrictive means to meet that interest, would overcome a substantial burden on religious freedom.   The authors provide some answers from their review of state court decisions. Their review indicated that states have articulated at least some compelling interests; these include “completing a trial without a three-day delay in deliberations, maintaining a zoning district as a single-family residential zone and … public safety and ‘aesthetics’”.  Among other things, they conclude that although the United States remains a stronghold for religious liberty by comparison with other countries, religious freedom prevails in less than half the cases, and that “free exercise claimants remain at a stark disadvantage in the face of generally applicable, religiously neutral laws.”

From the results of this study, it seems the legacy of Smith has worked all too well. Despite RFRA and state-level initiatives, the state under cover of “neutral” laws, still wins most of the time. And there is much reason to believe many of these neutral laws are not neutral at all, especially when we consider initiatives like the contraceptive mandate. But this study does give the lie to the arguments of some secularists that religion is too powerful in our society. The contrary seems to be increasingly the case.

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