The Status of Religious Arbitration in the United States and Canada

57 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2011 Last revised: 24 Oct 2011

Date Written: April 2, 2011


This article discusses, and challenges, the status of religious arbitration in the United States and Canada. Religious arbitration - defined as the settling of disputes informally by religious principles, rather than by having recourse to the courts - has been written about considerably in recent years. Many writers have argued that religious arbitration can be used to enhance religious freedom, and have discussed how secular rights can be protected before religious tribunals.

This article makes the opposite argument. It examines religious arbitration by looking at constitutional law on free exercise in the United States and Canada, and argues that religious arbitration agreements and awards have a limiting effect on religious freedom. Therefore, these agreements and awards should only be enforced in civil courts when courts are not competent to handle the disputes themselves.

Courts lack the required competence when the subject-matter of the dispute is inherently religious. In such situations, the freedom-promoting aspect of a court’s enforcement of a religious arbitration agreement or award outweighs the negative effect on freedom of religion, because the courts can provide necessary support for religious institutions. However, when the subject-matter of a dispute is entirely secular, there is no such benefit for freedom of religion. Therefore, freedom of religion is constrained by binding religious arbitral agreements and awards on secular matters, and courts should decline to enforce such agreements or awards.

Keywords: Law and religion, comparative law, arbitration, dispute resolution, First Amendment

Suggested Citation

Walter, Nicholas, The Status of Religious Arbitration in the United States and Canada (April 2, 2011). Santa Clara Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Nicholas Walter (Contact Author)

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz ( email )

51 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics