Pluralism and Public Legal Reason

17 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2007

See all articles by Lawrence B. Solum

Lawrence B. Solum

University of Virginia School of Law


What role does and should religion play in the legal sphere of a modern liberal democracy? Does religion threaten to create divisions that would undermine the stability of the constitutional order? Or is religious disagreement itself a force that works to create consensus on some of the core commitments of constitutionalism - liberty of conscience, toleration, limited government, and the rule of law? This essay explores these questions from the perspectives of contemporary political philosophy and constitutional theory. The thesis of the essay is that pluralism - the diversity of religious and secular conceptions of the good - can and should work as a force for constitutional consensus and that such a consensus is best realized through commitment to an ideal of public legal reason instantiated by the practice of legal formalism.

The case for these claims is made in six parts. After the introduction, Part II, The Fact of Pluralism in the Context of Contemporary Religious Division, explores the idea of religious division in light of an important notion in political philosophy - the idea that John Rawls calls the fact of reasonable pluralism. Part III, Public Legal Reason, argues that the fact of pluralism has important normative consequences for the foundations of normative legal theory and argues for an ideal of public legal reason. Part IV, Legal Formalism, contends that this idea is best realized in constitutional practice through a formalist approach to constitutional interpretation - one that deliberately eschews direct reliance on religious and secular comprehensive conceptions of the good. Part V, Feasibility and Positive Theory, discusses the question whether this ideal of public legal reason and corresponding conception of constitutional formalism are realistic, given the constraints imposed by democratic politics under contemporary conditions. Finally, Part VI, Religious Division Revisited: From Pluralism to Formalism, brings the discussion to a close.

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Keywords: public reason, pluralism, Rawls, formalism, religion, toleration, free exercise, establishment, public square, overlapping consensus, jurisprudence, philosophy of law, democracy

Suggested Citation

Solum, Lawrence B., Pluralism and Public Legal Reason. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 15, pp. 7-23, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Lawrence B. Solum (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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