Sunday, January 29, 2012
When Employment Division v. Smith was decided, it had committed opponents and supporters. Opponents claimed that it represented the end of free exercise; supporters argued that at long last, the Court adopted an appropriately equal, predictable, and univocal principle of free exercise which limited the scope of its political interventions. There was disagreement about the wisdom of Smith (including in Congress, which reacted negatively to Smith with some statutes), but few doubted that Smith was a very big deal for constitutional religious liberty.
The informed readership at MOJ of course knows that Smith carved out various exceptions to the rule that neutral laws of general application are constitutional. The first exception dealt with the idea of hybrid rights. The idea was that a less than independently viable free exercise claim, when coupled with another constitutional right of uncertain strength, would become viable. Lower courts have adopted various interpretations of this exception: some have treated it as non-binding dicta, while others have tried to operationalize it in various ways. The second exception has proved to be far more important: where the law at issue is not truly a law of general application -- where a system of individualized assessments with respect to exemption from the law has been adopted -- then the law is again subject to strict scrutiny. I've looked into the question of how much, and how often, lower courts are using this exception (and I also inquired a bit about the extent to which litigants are using it). It turns out...a whole lot. Indeed, the latest example of the application of the individual assessment exception appears in a case just decided in the Sixth Circuit, where Judge Sutton held that a student who was dismissed from a counseling program because she refused on religious grounds to counsel homosexual couples and non-married couples could proceed with her claim. The court held that the school's "no referral to other counselors" policy was not one of general application, because referrals for secular reasons had been permitted. For more on the case, see this item. You might wonder just how powerful the individualized assessment exception is...you will have to wait for my book to see just how much!
The third exception carved out by Smith was for the church autonomy cases, and at one time it was not clear whether the ministerial exception would fall into that exception. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court made clear that it did. And now (courtesy of the excellent Professor Friedman at Religion Clause blog), it seems that the South Dakota Supreme Court has extended Hosanna-Tabor to apply outside the employment context to a case about the potential dissolution of a particular religious group. It is too early to tell what will happen...but...it may be that because of Hosanna-Tabor's uncertain scope, lower courts (state and federal) will extend it in unexpected directions -- and directions which differ one from another.
If this does happen, I think we may witness (in conjunction with the continuing expansion and complication of some of the other exceptions) the taming of Employment Division v. Smith. Smith will not be overruled, but it may be substantially chipped away in various ways. And so what appeared once -- to opponents and supporters alike -- to be a rule of iron predictability, will in fact become something very different.