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Free Exercise and the Problem of Symmetry


Nelson Tebbe


Brooklyn Law School

August 2005

Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 56, 2005
St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-0023

Abstract:     
This Article identifies a difficulty with the neutrality paradigm that currently shapes thinking about the Free Exercise Clause both on the Supreme Court and among its leading critics. It proposes a liberty component, shows how it would generate more attractive results than neutrality alone, and defends the liberty approach against likely objections.

A controversial neutrality rule currently governs cases brought under the Free Exercise Clause. Under that rule, only laws and policies that have the purpose of discriminating against religion draw heightened scrutiny. All others are presumptively constitutional, regardless of how severely they burden religious practices.

Critics have attacked the Court's rule with compelling normative arguments. Curiously, though, the leading academic critics have not directed those arguments against neutrality itself. Rather, they have argued that the Court has adopted the wrong sort of neutrality principle. Instead of purposive neutrality, they call for substantive neutrality. That approach would closely scrutinize not only laws or policies that discriminate purposefully, but also those that have the incidental effect of disadvantaging religion.

This Article points out a difficulty with the critics' proposal that it calls the problem of symmetry. In order to qualify as neutral, substantive neutrality must apply in the same way to laws that benefit religion as to laws that burden it. Neutralists could not apply strict substantive neutrality to laws that burden religion, but only the more permissive purposive neutrality to laws that benefit religion. That regime would not be neutral. It would systematically advantage religion in violation of evenhandedness.

Some of the leading academic critics recognize that substantive neutrality must resist laws that favor religion as well as those that disfavor it. But many of their practical proposals seem to violate the symmetry constraint. Accommodations of religion, in particular, often have the effect of advantaging religious practices over comparable secular activities. For instance, the critics must strongly support the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which applies strict scrutiny (as a statutory matter) to prison regulations that incidentally but substantially burden religious observance among inmates. The Supreme Court recently upheld that law even though it has the effect of advantaging sacred practices over analogous secular ones. The critics surely must applaud that result. Yet advantaging religious over secular practices is difficult to square with substantive neutrality.

Liberty, in contrast to neutrality, is asymmetrical. It protects religious freedom regardless of whether doing so incidentally advantages observance over comparable secular practices. This Article argues that a liberty component is necessary to vindicate the critics' own normative intuitions concerning the proper role of religious freedom in American democracy.

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Date posted: August 11, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Tebbe, Nelson, Free Exercise and the Problem of Symmetry (August 2005). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 56, 2005; St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-0023. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=780504

Contact Information

Nelson Tebbe (Contact Author)
Brooklyn Law School ( email )
250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States
718.780.7960 (Phone)

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