‘The Peculiar Genius of Private-Law Systems': Making Room for Religious Commerce

47 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2020 Last revised: 13 Aug 2020

See all articles by Michael A. Helfand

Michael A. Helfand

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law

Date Written: 2020


Religious commerce has long sat uncomfortably at the nexus of public law and private law. On the one hand, such transactions invariably have garden-variety commercial objectives, which are best achieved and regulated through the law of tort, contract and property. And yet the intermingled religious aspirations of the parties often inject constitutional concerns that muddy the waters. To navigate these challenges, the Supreme Court famously embraced the neutral principles of law framework, which encouraged parties to draft private law agreements using secular terminology. Thus, while the Establishment Clause provided the outer boundaries for what was legally possible, the neutral principles of law framework made space for religion under the umbrella of private law. This equilibrium between public and private law, however, has become increasingly unsettled. As the permutations of contracting for religion have proliferated, courts and scholars have searched for tools to regulate what they view as problematic outcomes. At the core of such criticisms is an instinct that judicial enforcement of privatized religious obligation undermines a principled commitment to separation of church and state. In turn, courts and scholars have reached into their constitutional toolboxes, searching for legal doctrines that might eliminate the kinds of outcomes they view as offending fundamental constitutional principles. The goal of this article is to argue that this public law instinct—the notion that regulating the field of religion and private law is best achieved through the expansion of constitutional prohibitions—is deeply misguided. Ultimately, successfully merging religion and private law requires promoting doctrines that, on the one hand, address legitimate concerns, but do so without eliminating the very legal terrain made possible by the neutral principles of law framework. Failure to do so—and reflexively reaching into our constitutional toolbox—leaves both courts and scholars without the tools they need to meet these legal challenges.

Keywords: religious commerce, arbitration contract, Establishment Clause, religious question doctrine, private law

Suggested Citation

Helfand, Michael A., ‘The Peculiar Genius of Private-Law Systems': Making Room for Religious Commerce (2020). Washington University Law Review, Vol. 97, No. 6, p. 1787, Pepperdine University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2020/2  , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3520786

Michael A. Helfand (Contact Author)

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law ( email )

24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263
United States

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