All this month, the Law and Religion Forum hosts an online symposium on Vincent Phillip Muñoz‘s new article, “Two Concepts of Religious Liberty.” In this leadoff post, Muñoz summarizes his argument. For other posts in the series, please click here.
“[I]t is proper to keep in mind, that all power in just & free Govts. is derived from Compact . . .”
– James Madison, “On Sovereignty,” (1835)
In the wake of Antonin Scalia’s untimely passing earlier this year, originalists and conservatives praised the Justice’s legacy with one notable exception—his majority opinion in the Free Exercise Clause case, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990). Stanford Law Professor Michael McConnell identified Smith as his least favorite Scalia opinion. Michael Stokes Paulsen went even further, writing an entire essay about Smith titled, “Justice Scalia’s Worst Opinion.” Calling it a “constitutional disaster,” Paulsen, who holds a Distinguished University Chair at the University of St. Thomas, claimed that Scalia overturned the only interpretation “that makes sense of the decision to have a free exercise clause in the first place” and overthrew the “understanding [that] accords with the founding generation’s understanding of religious freedom as a ‘natural right.’” Even for a “fainthearted” originalist, as Scalia once labeled himself, that is harsh criticism.
I certainly agree that Scalia’s Smith opinion has significant shortcomings (including everything about “hybrid rights”), but from an originalist perspective, its basic conclusion is correct. I’ll go even further: Justice Scalia’s non-exemptionist reading of the Free Exercise Clause is the only construction consistent with the American founders’ natural rights political philosophy and their attendant social compact constitutionalism. As much as I admire the scholarship of McConnell, Paulsen, and other originalist defenders of the Sherbert approach, they are simply wrong when they claim the founders’ natural rights constitutionalism supports a constitutional right to exemptions.
Let me start, however, with a point of agreement. I applaud Professors McConnell and Paulsen for emphasizing the founders’ understanding of religious liberty as a natural right. Recovering the idea of natural rights is essential to contest the idea that the state grants religious liberty and can limit it according to its own interests and preferences.
The founders rejected the language of toleration, because toleration presumes that the state possesses legitimate authority over religious exercises. Instead, the founders recognized that the right of religious liberty inheres in the individual prior to state recognition. Individuals possess a right of Read more