Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-ndmmz Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-28T07:55:11.664Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The Supreme Court's Assault on Free Exercise, and the Amicus Brief That Was Never Filed

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2015


On April 17, 1990, in Employment Division v Smith, the Supreme Court decided that neutral laws of general applicability may be applied to restrict or forbid religious exercise, and that such applications raise no issue under the free exercise clause. The opinion removes many of the issues discussed in this journal from the scope of positive constitutional law.

The Court noted some exceptions. Whether anything remains of free exercise depends on future cases interpreting those exceptions and interpreting the Court's requirement that laws regulating religion be neutral. The Court recognized constitutional protection for religious speech and religious instruction of children, and if interpreted generously, those exceptions could protect a large proportion of religious conduct. If the exceptions and the neutrality requirement are interpreted narrowly, the free exercise clause has little independent content.

I. Commentary on The Williamsburg Charter
Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 1990

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1. 110 S Ct 1595 (1990).

2. Editor's Note: The author of this article was one of the signers, in his capacity as Counsel for the National Council of Churches. Other law professors who signed the petition included Frank S. Alexander, John S. Baker, Charles W. Barrow, William W. Bassett, Patrick L. Baude, Harold J. Berman, Howard Bromberg, Lynn Robert Buzzard, Angela C. Carmella, Erwin Chemerinsky, Daniel D. Cockle, David M. Cobin, William Cohen, Joseph L. Daly, George W. Dent, C. Thomas Dienes, Robert A. Destro, Robert F. Drinan, W. Cole Durham, Carl H. Esbeck, Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Marc Gallanter, John K. Garvey, Frederick Mark Gedicks, Donald Gjerdingen, Kent Greenawalt, Gerald Gunther, David W. Gwinn, Lynne Henderson, Allan Ides, Stanley Ingber, Phillip E. Johnson, Edward J. Larson, Rosalie Levinson, Sanford Levinson, Karl Manheim, John H. Mansfield, Christopher N. May, Michael W. McConnell, Judith A. McMorrow, James M. O'Fallon, Stephen L. Pepper, Michael John Perry, Lucas A. Powe, Norman Redlich, Charles E. Rice, Lauren Robel, Michael Scherschligt, Margaret Gay Stewart, Richard Stith, Ruti G. Teitel, Laurence H. Tribe, and Howard Vogel.

3. Editor's Note: Matters of religious liberty often engender controversy even among various religious organizations, with profoundly differing religious traditions and convictions, and among various organizations devoted to the protection of civil liberties, with their differing political agendas. The swiftness with which a very wide spectrum of religious communities and civil liberties organizations joined together in the petition for rehearing in the Smith case is itself a remarkable sign that the Court had strayed far from the common perception of the duty of the judiciary to protect religious liberty. Signers of the petition for rehearing included the Counsel of the following religious and civil liberties organizations: the American Civil Liberties Foundation, the American Friends Service Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom of the Christian Legal Society, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, People for the American Way, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, and the Worldwide Church of God. Two prominent litigators who appeared often on the opposite sides of many church-state cases in the past two decades, William Bentley Ball and Leo Pfeffer, both signed the petition for rehearing. The Court denied the petition on June 4, 1990. 110 SCt 2605.

4. See Stern, Robert, Gressman, Eugene, and Shapiro, Stephen, Supreme Court Practice § 15.8 at 631 (Bureau of National Affairs, 6th ed 1986)Google Scholar.

5. Editor's Note: See Laycock, Douglas, The Remnants of Free Exercise, 1990 S Ct Rev 1Google Scholar; McConnell, Michael W., Free Exercise Revisionism and the Smith Decision, 57 U Chi L Rev 1109 (1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gordon, James D., Free Exercise on the Mountain Top, 79 Calif L Rev 91 (1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and see Gaffney, Edward McGlynn, Laycock, Douglas, and McConnell, Michael W., An Open Letter on Religious Freedom 11 First Things 44 (03 1991)Google Scholar.

6. See, e.g., Patterson v McLean Credit Union, 485 US 617 (1988)Google Scholar; Garcia v San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 468 US 1213 (1984)Google Scholar; Illinois v Gates, 459 US 1028 (1975)Google Scholar; Brown v Bd of Educ, 347 US 483, 495496 (1954)Google Scholar; Brown v Bd of Educ, 345 US 972 (1953)Google Scholar.

7. McConnell, Michael W., The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, 103 Harv L Rev 1409, 1466–73 (1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8. Id at 1443-44, 1473.

9. Id at 1461-62.

10. Id at 1453.

11. Id at 1435-55, 1473-78.

12. 110 S Ct at 1599.

13. Id.

14. See Citizen Publishing Co v United States, 394 US 131 (1969)Google Scholar (upholding application of antitrust laws to commercial press); Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co v Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, 460 US 575 (1983)Google Scholar (commercial media must pay generally applicable taxes).

15. Brown v Socialist Workers '74 Campaign Committee (Ohio), 459 US 87 (1982)Google Scholar; NAACP v Alabama, 357 US 445 (1958)Google Scholar.

16. Hustler v Falwell, 458 US 46 (1988)Google Scholar.

17. 110 S Ct at 1604-05.

18. Id at 1604.

19. Osborne v Ohio, 110 S Ct 1691 (1990)Google Scholar.

20. Young v. American Mini Theaters, 427 US 50, 61 (1976)Google Scholar (“there is surely a less vital interest in the uninhibited exhibition of material that is on the borderline between pornography and artistic expression than in the free dissemination of ideas of political and social significance”).

21. 374 US 398 (1963).

22. 310 US 586 (1940).

23. See Irons, Peter H., The Courage of Their Convictions 2235 (Free Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

24. 319 US 624 (1943).

25. 476 US 693 (1986).

26. 480 US 136, 141 (1987).

27. 455 US 252 (1982).

28. 406 US 205 (1972).

29. Id at 216.

30. Id at 235.

31. Edwards v Aguillard, 482 US 578, 617 (Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, dissenting).

32. 485 US 439 (1988).

33. 476 US 693 (1986).

34. 110 S Ct at 1602, citing United States v Lee, 455 US 252 (1982), and Gillette v United States, 401 US 437 (1971). The Court might have added to this list Bob Jones University v United States, 461 US 574 (1983), which also scrutinized a facially neutral law under the compelling interest test.

35. 475 US 503 (1986).

36. 482 US 342 (1987).

37. 485 US 439 (1988).

38. Kahane v. Carlson, 527 F 2d 492 (2d Cir 1975).

39. 110 S Ct at 1601-02.

40. Hook, Sidney, Paradoxes of Freedom 23 (California, 1962)Google Scholar.

41. 483 F Supp 266 (ND Iowa 1980).

42. 477 US 619 (1986).

43. Comment, Title VII and the Appointment of Women Clergy: A Statutory and Constitutional Quagmire, 13 Colum J L & Soc Probs 257 (1977)Google Scholar.

44. 22 Fair Empl Prac Cases 762 (Cal Super Ct 1980)Google Scholar.

45. 536 A 2d 1 (DC App 1987).

46. 110 S Ct at 1605, n 4.

47. 9 Religious Freedom Rptr 343 (Super Ct Suffolk County, Mass, 10 11, 1989)Google Scholar, aff'd, 408 Mass 38 (1990).

48. 511 F Supp 613 (ND Tex 1981), aff'd, 670 F 2d 46 (5th Cir 1982).

49. See Laycock, , A Survey of Religious Liberty in the United States, 47 Ohio St L J 409, 416–19, 438–39 (1986)Google Scholar.

50. See, e.g., Thomas v Review Board, 450 US 707, 717 (1981); Wisconsin v Yoder, 406 US 205, 220 (1972); Lemon v Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 (1971).

51. For careful analysis of the neutrality of exemptions, see McConnell, Michael W. & Posner, Richard A., An Economic Approach to Issues of Religious Freedom, 56 U Chi L Rev 1, 3254 (1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52. Where this is not true — where religious practice coincides with self-interest, as in conscientious objection to military service — the calculus of neutrality may be different, and the Court has taken that into account. See Gillette v United States, 401 US 437 (1971).

53. 110 S Ct at 1606.

54. Carotene Products v United States, 304 US 144, 152 n 4 (1938).

55. County of Allegheny v American Civil Liberties Union, 109 S Ct 3086, 3134 (Kennedy dissenting).

56. 110 S Ct at 1606.

57. HR 5377 (101st Cong. 2d Sess). Similar legislation will be introduced in the 102nd Congress.

58. Katzenbach v Morgan, 384 US 641 (1966).

59. 42 USC § 2283 (1988).