Protecting the Religious Liberty of Religious Institutions

53 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2013

See all articles by Alan E. Brownstein

Alan E. Brownstein

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: February 19, 2013


This article is a preliminary inquiry into the question of whether the freedom of the Church, as a distinct religious institution, can be justified from an American legal perspective. The first part of the article identifies respect for the individual dignity and autonomy of the person as a primary justification for providing distinctive legal protection to religious liberty. It goes on to discuss whether distinctive religious liberty protection for religious institutions can be derived from the dignitary interests of the institution’s members – and if so, whether there is some limit beyond which institutional religious liberty claims cannot be grounded in the individual dignitary interests of congregants or constituents.

The second and longer part of the Article examines whether an argument for protecting and accommodating the autonomy of religious institutions can be grounded in American history during the 1700’s and early 1800’s. The history of this period includes multiple cross currents of values and interests that very by time and region – making it difficult to reach more than tentative conclusions. However, the Protestant commitment by religious liberty proponents to the belief that each man must judge for himself on matters relating to religion, the virulent anti-Catholicism of the period, at least some of which may be attributed to fear of and antipathy toward top down ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the prevalence of anti-clerical attitudes suggest some limits to the American commitment to the freedom of the Church as an institution. Clearly, a sphere of religious liberty extended to the local congregation and to a considerable extent to democratically created and accountable ecclesiastical decision-making bodies. It may be argued, however, that Americans of this period viewed non-democratic, hierarchical religious institutional structures – that challenged the intrinsic right of individual conscience in matters of faith – to be much less deserving of respect and protection.

Keywords: Constitutional law, freedom of the church, free exercise of religion, history of religious freedom, religious liberty

Suggested Citation

Brownstein, Alan Edward, Protecting the Religious Liberty of Religious Institutions (February 19, 2013). Journal of Contemporary Legal issues, Forthcoming, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 326, Available at SSRN:

Alan Edward Brownstein (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States
530-752-2586 (Phone)
530-752-4704 (Fax)

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