Constitutional Anomalies or As-Applied Challenges? A Defense of Religious Exemptions

68 Pages Posted: 4 Dec 2017  

Stephanie H. Barclay

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Mark Rienzi

Catholic University of America - Columbus School of Law

Date Written: November 30, 2017


In the wake of Hobby Lobby and now in anticipation of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the notion that religious exemptions are dangerously out of step with norms of constitutional jurisprudence has taken on renewed popularity within the academy. Critics increasingly claim that religious exemptions, such as those available prior to Employment Division v. Smith and now available under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), are a threat to basic fairness, equality, and the rule of law. Under this view, exemptions create an anomalous private right to ignore laws that everyone else must obey. And such a scheme will result in a tidal wave of religious claimants striking down government action at every turn.

Our article presents a novel observation that undermines these central criticisms. Far from being “anomalous” or “out of step” with our constitutional traditions, religious exemptions are just a form of “as-applied” challenge offered as a default remedy elsewhere in constitutional adjudication. Furthermore, under this form of as-applied adjudication, courts regularly provide exemptions from generally applicable laws for other First Amendment protected activity like expressive conduct that mirror exemptions critics fear in the context of religious exercise. This is true even in the hotly debated context of anti-discrimination laws.

The article also presents original empirical analysis, including a national survey of all federal RFRA cases since Hobby Lobby, indicating that concerns of critics about religious exemptions have not been borne out as an empirical matter. Our findings suggest that even after Hobby Lobby, cases dealing with religious exemption requests remain much less common than cases dealing with other expressive claims, and are less likely to result in invalidation of government actions. In fact, religious cases as a percentage of the total reported case load appear to have decreased after Hobby Lobby. Thus, far from creating anomalous preferential treatment that threatens the rule of law, a religious exemption framework simply offers a similar level of protection courts have long provided for dissenting minority rights housed elsewhere in the First Amendment.

Keywords: Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Religious Exemption, Compelled Speech, Expressive Conduct, Preferential Treatment, Special Privilege, Religious Exercise, Empirical, First Amendment, Masterpiece, Cakeshop, Baker, Cake, Hobby Lobby, Supreme Court, Exemption, Generally Applicable, As-Applied, RFRA

Suggested Citation

Barclay, Stephanie H. and Rienzi, Mark, Constitutional Anomalies or As-Applied Challenges? A Defense of Religious Exemptions (November 30, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Stephanie H. Barclay (Contact Author)

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty ( email )

1200 New Hampshire Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
United States

Mark Rienzi

Catholic University of America - Columbus School of Law ( email )

3600 John McCormack Rd., NE
Washington, DC 20064
United States

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