The Atrophic Free Exercise Clause

The Supreme Court has had essentially nothing of substance to say about it over the last 23 years. The contraction of whatever rights are protected by it proceeds apace. In this article a couple of years ago, I noted that religious accommodation–

one of the most vital issues of religious free exercise that at one time implicated the Free Exercise Clause directly—has by now largely become entirely statutory. The Roberts Court has decided or issued substantive orders in 4 cases involving either RFRA or RLUIPA [excluding the nonprofit contraception mandate litigation]. In the same period it has decided only one case (perhaps) partially about the Free Exercise Clause, a case in any event that is arguably not about religious accommodation at all and that represents a carve-out from general free exercise principles. The single case that brought both statutory and free exercise claims was resolved solely on the basis of the statutory claim without any decision as to free exercise.

It is tempting to attribute the reason for this transition from the Free Exercise Clause to statute law entirely to the holding of Employment Division v. Smith, which ostensibly precluded judicial review as to laws that are neutral and of general application. To be sure, the rule announced in Smith has contracted the number of Free Exercise Clause challenges. And yet there are features of Smith—most notably the issue of the meaning of “general applicability” and the scope of what I have elsewhere described as the “individual-assessment exception” to Smith—that have suggested to several lower courts that accommodations are constitutionally required far more often than may appear under Smith. To date, however, the Supreme Court has declined to hear any cases raising a direct challenge to Smith.

The enfeeblement of the Free Exercise Clause continues. Last week, the Court denied cert. in Stormans v. Wiesman (with Justice Alito dissenting from the denial, in an opinion joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas), a case about Washington State’s regulations requiring the stocking of drugs in pharmacies that provided exemptions for various secular reasons (business reasons, for example) but not for religious reasons. The case presented a golden opportunity for the Court to clarify what exactly “generally applicable” means under the test given to us a full generation ago by Employment Division v. Smith. Both Mark and I joined an excellent amicus brief urging the Court to do so.

No dice. Disappointing, but not surprising. Justice Kennedy, after all, was in the Smith majority, and while he authored the majority opinion in Lukumi-Babalu, his opinion offered a rather confused and confusing reading of general applicability (Justice Scalia’s concurrence was much better on this point). He joined four other Justices in denying cert.

But the larger point is that the Free Exercise Clause, at least as a possible source of accommodation, is increasingly a dead letter. Unless one has evidence of explicit discriminatory motivation in the making of exceptions (and it’s got to be really explicit), one should expect the Clause to offer nothing. The Court has little interest in saying anything else about the Free Exercise Clause, other than raising it as a kind of weak, pseudo-justification for carve-outs like the ministerial exception.

There are all sorts of political and cultural reasons for the atrophying of the Free Exercise Clause, of course. Some of those reasons are, I plan to argue in a new paper tentatively titled Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization, pretty good reasons. But whatever the reasons–good or bad–they are not going away. In a generation or less, the Free Exercise Clause may well find itself in the company of the Privileges or Immunities Clause and the Third Amendment.

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