Free Exercise by Moonlight
35 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2015 Last revised: 11 Apr 2015
Date Written: March 30, 2015
How is the current condition of religious free exercise, and religious accommodation in specific, best understood? What is the relationship of the two most important free exercise cases of the past half-century, Employment Division v. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC? This essay explores four possible answers to these questions.
1. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor are the twin suns of religious accommodation under the Constitution. They are distinctively powerful approaches. 2. Hosanna-Tabor’s approach to constitutional free exercise is now more powerful than Smith’s. Smith has been eclipsed. 3. Hosanna-Tabor has shown itself to be feeble. It has been eclipsed by Smith. 4. Smith augured the waning of religious accommodation, which proceeds apace. Hosanna-Tabor does little to change that.
In describing these possibilities, the essay considers the cases themselves, various doctrinal developments (focusing on subsequent Supreme Court cases as well as lower court decisions interpreting Hosanna-Tabor), and the broader political and social context in which claims for religious accommodation are now received. It concludes that though each possibility has persuasive points (perhaps with the exception of the second), the last is most accurate.
Smith’s approach to free exercise continues to control for constitutional purposes and is, for more general political purposes, more entrenched than ever. Its admonition about fabulously remote threats of anarchy in a world where each “conscience is a law unto itself” has ironically become more apt as a warning against the multiplying number of secular interests argued to be legally cognizable than against religious accommodation run amok. There is no clearer manifestation of these developments than the recent emergence of theories maintaining that new dignitary and other third party harms resulting from religious accommodation ought to defeat religious freedom claims. These theories reflect the swollen ambit of state authority and defend surprising understandings of the limits of religious accommodation — understandings that pose grave threats to the American political tradition of providing generous religious exemptions from general laws. The ministerial exception simply represents the refracted glow of constitutional protection in the gathering gloom. It is free exercise by moonlight.
Keywords: RFRA, religious accommodation, dignity, ministerial exception
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