Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Amicus Brief for Overruling Employment Division v. Smith

In Fulton v. Philadelphia, the case about foster care, religious liberty, and LGBT nondiscrimination, the Supreme Court is (among other things) reconsidering Employment Division v. Smith. As most MOJ readers will know, for 30 years Smith has served as a precedent limiting the fundamental civil liberty of religious exercise, for everyone but particularly for a wide range of minority and unpopular faiths (which can include familiar religious minorities but also larger groups whose views are deeply unpopular in particular locations and institutional settings).

Doug Laycock and I have written, with co-counsel Kim Colby, an amicus brief arguing for overruling Smith. We filed on behalf of the Christian Legal Society and other groups Christian and Jewish. From the beginning of the summary of argument:

       I. Smith’s unprotective rule conflicts with constitutional text. When a law as applied makes a religious practice illegal, it is a law “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion],” whether or not it also has other applications.

       II. If the Free Exercise Clause doesn’t apply to neutral and generally applicable laws, it cannot serve its original purposes. Those purposes include protecting individual conscience and preventing human suffering, social conflict, and persecution.

         A. In the eighteenth century, every colony found that free exercise required exempting dissenters from oaths, military service, and other requirements that burdened their religious practices. Those laws, although neutral and generally applicable, overrode conscience, caused psychological suffering and loss of liberty or property, inflamed social conflict, and discouraged people from settling or remaining in the colony.

         B. Free-exercise exemptions are still needed today. Generally applicable laws without exemptions coerce conscience and cause Americans to suffer for their faith. In today’s atmosphere of cultural and political polarization, exemptions are needed to calm fear and resentment and reduce social conflict.

We then summarize other sections of the brief. But on the final quoted sentence above, let me quote a little from the full argument (below; cites in footnotes omitted). America's commitment to religious liberty was a response to the coercion and violence stemming from the fear- and resentment-based polarization of the 16th to 18th centuries.

Resentment and fear certainly operate in today’s political and cultural environment. Americans of different political parties now distrust each other more than at any time in the last fifty years. “[P]oliticians need only incite fear and anger toward the opposing party to win and maintain power.” “Confrontational politics” causes “voters to develop increasingly negative views of the opposing party.” Religious disagreements are an important component of this polarization.

       These developments make strong constitutional protections for religious liberty as important as ever. First, in an atmosphere of fear and distrust, people are especially likely to perceive threats to their religious practices as threats to their overall identity. Historic religious minorities fear that laws restricting their practices reflect the growing hostility of the majority. Conservative Christians fear that some applications of antidiscrimination laws pose existential threats to their institutions and to individuals in business and the professions.

       Vigorous protection of religious liberty calms polarization by reducing people’s “existential fear that a hostile majority will successfully attack their core commitments.” Protecting religious practice gives people space in civil society, not just to hold beliefs but to live by them.

       Second, negative polarization reduces the likelihood that the political process will accommodate the
needs of religious minorities. The side of the political divide that holds power often has no sympathy for the
predicament the other side faces. Culturally conservative places have little sympathy for Muslims, Native Americans, or other historic religious minorities. Culturally progressive places have little sympathy for conservative Christians. Thus, even when balanced solutions to  religious-liberty conflicts exist, the political process doesn’t reach them. In recent years, even state versions of RFRA—laws that once passed with near unanimity—have been blocked by the polarization over LGBT rights and religious liberty.


Berg, Thomas , Current Affairs | Permalink