The Political (and Other) Safeguards of Religious Freedom
16 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2011
Date Written: July 6, 2011
This essay is a contribution to a symposium marking the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s still-controversial decision in Employment Division v. Smith. That decision, it is suggested, should not be read as reflecting or requiring hostility or indifference towards claims for legislatively enacted accommodations of religion. Smith is not an endorsement of religion-blind neutrality in constitutional law; instead, it assigns to politically accountable actors the difficult, but crucially important, task of accommodating those whose religious exercise would otherwise be burdened by generally applicable laws. The essay goes on to suggest several things that must be true of our law and politics if this assignment is to work well, that is, to in fact promote and protect religious freedom. Among other things, it is proposed that governments should attend carefully to the “infrastructure” of religious freedom, and should work to create and sustain the institutional and other conditions that are conducive to religious liberty. And, notwithstanding Smith, courts should enforce vigorously, using judicially manageable standards, the church-autonomy principle and the institutional separation of religious and political authority. After all, the “political safeguards” of religious freedom can be effective only if there are work in society associations and authorities that are not merely political.
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