Do Churches Matter? Towards an Institutional Understanding of the Religion Clauses

23 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2008

Date Written: May 9, 2008


In recent years, several prominent scholars have called attention to the importance and role of "First Amendment institutions" and there is a growing body of work informed by an appreciation for what Professor Balkin calls the "infrastructure of free expression." The freedom of expression, he suggests, requires "more than mere absence of government censorship or prohibition to thrive; [it] also require[s] institutions, practices and technological structures that foster and promote [it]." The intuition animating this scholarship, then, is that the freedom of expression is not only enjoyed by and through, but also depends on the existence and flourishing of, certain institutions, newspapers, political parties, interest groups, libraries, expressive associations, universities and so on. These "First Amendment institutions" are free-speech actors, but they also play a structural - or, again, an "infrastructural" role in clearing out and protecting the civil-society space within which the freedom of speech can be well exercised. These institutions are not only conduits for expression, they are also "the scaffolding around which civil society is constructed, in which personal freedoms are exercised, in which loyalties are formed and transmitted, and in which individuals flourish.

Similar "infrastructural" claims can and should be proposed with respect to the freedom of religion. Like the freedom of speech, religious freedom has and requires an infrastructure. Like free expression, it is not exercised only by individuals; like free expression, its exercise requires more than an individual with something to say; like free expression, it involves more than protecting a solitary conscience. The freedom of religion is not only lived and experienced through institutions, it is also protected and nourished by them. Accordingly, the theories and doctrines we use to understand, apply and enforce the First Amendment's religious-freedom provisions should reflect and respect this fact. If we want to understand well the content and implications of our constitutional commitment to religious liberty, we need to ask, as Professors Lupu and Tuttle have put it, whether "religious entities occupy a distinctive place in our constitutional order[.]"

Keywords: Church and State, Religious Freedom, First Amendment, Religious Liberty, Free Exercise, Establishment Clause

JEL Classification: K10, K19, K39

Suggested Citation

Garnett, Richard W., Do Churches Matter? Towards an Institutional Understanding of the Religion Clauses (May 9, 2008). Villanova Law Review, Forthcoming, Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 08-17, Available at SSRN:

Richard W. Garnett (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

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