The Historical Origins of Judicial Religious Exemptions

70 Pages Posted: 1 May 2020 Last revised: 3 Feb 2021

Date Written: May 1, 2020


The Supreme Court has recently expressed a renewed interest in the question of when the Free Exercise Clause requires exemptions from generally applicable laws. While scholars have vigorously debated what the historical evidence has to say about this question, the conventional wisdom holds that judicially created exemptions would have been a new or extraordinary means of protecting religious exercise—a sea change in the American approach to judicial review when compared to the English common law.

This Article, however, questions that assumption and looks at this question from a broader perspective. When one views judicial decisions through the lens of equitable interpretation, one finds historical evidence of widespread judicially created exemptions that have been hiding in plain sight. Indeed, the judiciary’s ability to modify statutes to cohere with higher law principles like constitutional rights was widely accepted in the early republic. Though the judiciary did not always use modern language of exemptions, this was functionally what judges were doing on a large scale throughout the country and across a host of personal rights. The mode of analysis courts used to create these equitable exemptions also provides an important historical antecedent for modern strict scrutiny analysis.

An understanding of wider historical judicial practices helps avoid the trend of treating free exercise judicial remedies as an island in the law, and it also provides additional support for an original understanding in favor of religious exemptions. Thus, contrary to the conventional view, this Article demonstrates that judicially created religious exemptions are well within our constitutional traditions of judicial review, and may have more historical support than the Court’s current approach.

Keywords: religious exemption, religion, religious exercise, Free Exercise Clause, First Amendment, statutory interpretation, judicial exemption, judicial scrutiny, constitutional law

Suggested Citation

Barclay, Stephanie H., The Historical Origins of Judicial Religious Exemptions (May 1, 2020). 96 Notre Dame L. Rev. 55 (2020), Available at SSRN:

Stephanie H. Barclay (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

Eck Hall of Law
Notre Dame, IN 46556
United States
574-631-9407 (Phone)

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