Minority Religions and the Religion Clauses

83 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2005

See all articles by Thomas C. Berg

Thomas C. Berg

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law


This Article explores a minority-protection approach to interpreting the First Amendment's Religion Clauses. Under such a theory, the Religion Clauses together should be read to protect minority religious beliefs and practices from government burdens, and to equalize the status of minority religions before the government with that of majority faiths. Protecting minorities is not the sole or overriding purpose of the clauses, but it is a significant one. I build on previous scholarly work concerning religious minorities, but in some respects I critique them and reach different conclusions about where a minority-protection approach properly leads.

Part I argues that protection of minority religions should be an important consideration in interpreting the Religion Clauses. Part II addresses difficulties and complications in the idea of protecting minority faiths. The constitutional text protects all religious faiths, not just minorities. In addition, defining which faiths are minorities is more complicated than previous commentators have allowed. Because of America's complex patterns of religious identities, who is a minority will often vary depending on the geographical location, on the institutional setting of a legal dispute, and on how one chooses the key religious differences that sort groups into different categories.

Given these complications, courts generally should refrain from singling out certain religious groups as minorities and treating them differently than other groups. Instead, courts should develop principles for various cases that are applicable to all faiths, but that tend to protect whoever happens to be a minority in the given geographical location, institution, or cultural atmosphere.

Part III develops such principles for the leading categories of Religion Clause disputes. As other commentators have argued, courts seeking to protect religious minorities should read the Free Exercise Clause expansively to exempt religiously motivated conduct from certain laws that impose significant burdens on the conduct. Likewise, the Establishment Clause should be broadly interpreted to restrict government-sponsored religious practices in public schools and other government institutions because of their inherent majoritarian bias.

However, contrary to the common strict-separationist wisdom, permitting government assistance for private religious education and social services can have positive aspects for many religious minorities. The Court's increasing approval of programs of aid is quite defensible under a minority-protection approach, if the program includes measures to protect children and families from being pushed into schools that teach a faith different from their own.

Keywords: Religion clauses, minority religions, separation of church and state, First Amendment, religious identity, government aid

JEL Classification: Z00

Suggested Citation

Berg, Thomas Charles, Minority Religions and the Religion Clauses. Washington University Law Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 3, 2004, U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-02, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=594604

Thomas Charles Berg (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law ( email )

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Mail # MSL400
Minneapolis, MN 55403-2015
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