Secularism’s Equation of Sincerity With Religiosity

In one of the critical free exercise inquiries, courts are supposed to evaluate whether a religious claimant is “sincere” about his or her belief. Anything more than a pro forma inquiry into sincerity, however, is thought to be problematic. Nevertheless, an inquiry into the claimant’s religious sincerity seems to be one of the very few things courts can actually explore in evaluating free exercise claims.

But why is this? Why reduce religiosity as a legal matter to sincerity alone? A recent book suggests that it is characteristic of secular societies to deem sincerity as somehow at the core of religiosity. The book is Sincerely Held: American Secularism and Its Believers, by Charles McCrary (University of Chicago Press).

“Sincerely held religious belief” is now a common phrase in discussions of American religious freedom, from opinions handed down by the US Supreme Court to local controversies. The “sincerity test” of religious belief has become a cornerstone of US jurisprudence, framing what counts as legitimate grounds for First Amendment claims in the eyes of the law. In Sincerely Held, Charles McCrary provides an original account of how sincerely held religious belief became the primary standard for determining what legally counts as authentic religion.
McCrary skillfully traces the interlocking histories of American sincerity, religion, and secularism starting in the mid-nineteenth century. He analyzes a diverse archive, including Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man, vice-suppressing police, Spiritualist women accused of being fortune-tellers, eclectic conscientious objectors, secularization theorists, Black revolutionaries, and anti-LGBTQ litigants. Across this historyMcCrary reveals how sincerity and sincerely held religious belief developed as technologies of secular governance, determining what does and doesn’t entitle a person to receive protections from the state.
This fresh analysis of secularism in the United States invites further reflection on the role of sincerity in public life and religious studies scholarship, asking why sincerity has come to matter so much in a supposedly “post-truth” era.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has denied review in Doe v. McKee. The certiorari petition asked the Supreme Court to review a decision made by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which held that unborn fetuses do not have due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution and do not have standing to challenge Rhode Island’s Reproductive Privacy Act.  
  • In Redlich v. City of St. Louis, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a suit brought by a Christian pastor and his assistant challenging a city ordinance that required a permit to distribute potentially hazardous food. Plaintiffs had previously been cited for distributing bologna sandwiches to hungry people they encountered in St. Louis.
  • In Marte v. Montefiore Medical Center, a New York federal district court dismissed claims by a former Medical Center employee who sued after the Medical Center denied her a reasonable accommodation when she refused to receive the COVID vaccine. Among other things, the court rejected Plaintiff’s Title VII, free exercise, and equal protection claims. 
  • Suit was filed in a Maryland federal district court alleging that Baltimore’s sign permit ordinance violates Plaintiff’s free speech and free exercise rights. The complaint, in Roswell v. City of Baltimore, seeks a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from requiring Plaintiff to obtain permits in order to use A-frame signs when engaging in religiously-motivated sidewalk anti-abortion counseling near a Planned Parenthood facility. 
  • In Kariye v. Mayorkas, three Muslim plaintiffs sued the Department of Homeland Security alleging that border officers routinely and intentionally single out Muslim-American travelers to demand they answer religious questions. Applying the Supreme Court’s test articulated in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the California federal district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause challenge. The court also rejected, among other things, plaintiffs’ free exercise, freedom of association, and RFRA challenges.
  • Suit was filed in a Michigan federal district court by a woman who had worked as a physician assistant for seventeen years but was then fired for refusing, on religious grounds, to refer patients for gender-transitioning drugs and procedures and to use pronouns that corresponded to a patient’s gender identity rather than their biological sex. The complaint in Kloosterman v. Metropolitan Hospital brings Free Exercise and Equal Protection claims against Defendant. 
  • In Congregation 3401 Prairie Bais Yeshaya D’Kerestir, Inc. v. City of Miami, a Florida federal district court refused to dismiss claims that city officials’ harassment of a rabbi who hosted daily minyans at his home for guests violated the First Amendment. Private groups worshiping at a person’s home are permitted in residential areas under the city’s zoning code.