The Emory Center for the Study of Law and Religion has published my essay, “RFRA and the New Thoreaus,” which I presented in last week’s online symposium. Here’s an excerpt:

In short, the question whether RFRA’s definition of “religion” includes idiosyncratic, personal beliefs is not entirely clear. To be fair, when Congress enacted RFRA in 1993, one could dismiss the question as peripheral. As I have explained, at the time, more than 90% of Americans claimed a religious affiliation, and the question of idiosyncratic convictions did not have great legal significance. The Rise of the Nones has changed things. As Nones become more established in our religious culture, one can imagine many claims for exemptions based on idiosyncratic spiritual commitments: a vegetarian diet in prison, for example, or the right to wear certain clothing or insignia in the military–or, as has already occurred, an exemption from public health requirements, like vaccination and mask mandates. 

The rise of the Nones thus makes it likely that courts will have to grapple seriously with the definition of religion for purposes of RFRA–as well as the Free Exercise Clause and other laws. As I have argued elsewhere, the best approach would be a flexible one. At its core, religion means a collective phenomenon, a community of believers that exists through time, not a solitary spiritual quest. In common understanding, religion has always suggested a group of people linked together in worship. As sociologist Christian Smith writes, “religions are almost invariably social activities—communities of memory engaged in carrying on particular traditions.” Without a communal structure to give them meaning, religious practices such as prayer, fasting, and so on are incoherent, “simply the strange doings of odd people.” 

You can read the whole essay here.

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