Protecting Free Exercise

Michael W. McConnell In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's invalidation of RFRA, Congress is considering legislation (The Religious Liberty Protection Act) that would once again enable religious believers and institutions to challenge, in court, government interference with religious practice. Under this bill, believers could obtain exemptions, or accommodations, if the government lacks a sufficiently strong justification (a "compelling state interest") for hindering religious practices that conflict with the law. This has been the principal free exercise jurisprudence for the latter half of the twentieth century.

Some people, however, oppose the principle behind the bill, which they believe is unconstitutional. What are their arguments--and why are they wrong?

To begin, until 1990 the Supreme Court had interpreted the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as protecting the free exercise of religion from governmental burden, subject to the "compelling state interest" test. A new conservative majority on the Court, however, overruled prior decisions and held that the free exercise clause provides no shield against "neutral laws of general applicability," no matter how severely they may trench upon religious freedom. Additional protection for religious freedom, the Court held, is left to the political process.

By overwhelming bipartisan majorities, Congress responded in 1993 with legislation under its power to "enforce" the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment (including the Bill of Rights). But the Supreme Court held last year that Congress's Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power does not go so far. In response, Congress is considering more modest legislation, under its commerce and spending powers, that would accomplish much the same objective.

The problem arises from the fact that few infringements on religious freedom in this country result from deliberate bigotry or persecution, but occur rather when thoughtless legislators and zealous bureaucrats insist on applying restrictions across the board, without regard to their special consequences for religious practice.

For instance, almost all citizens can be required to give evidence in court if they have information relating to a criminal act. But if applied without exception, this requirement means that information a Roman Catholic priest obtains in the confessional must be divulged in a court, a move that would destroy the confidentiality of a sacrament considered holy by the church. Since the first cases began, in the early 1800s, courts have uniformly recognized that the free exercise of religion requires an exception--the "priest-penitent" privilege--from the otherwise generally applicable requirement to testify.

Another example involved a Seventh-day Adventist denied unemployment compensation benefits because she refused to work on Saturday. Without an exception, based on religious belief, for refusing otherwise suitable work, citizens who observe the Sabbath would be forced to choose between forfeiting benefits or violating their faith.

Absent exceptions, churches that limit some or all clergy positions to men could be forced to hire female priests or ministers. In a case in San Francisco, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, a church would have been forced to hire an openly gay organist, contrary to its moral teaching. In Maryland officials tried to force a Catholic hospital to provide training in abortions. A Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C., had to go to court when zoning administrators ruled that churches cannot perform their age-old function of feeding the poor if located in residential neighborhoods. Because of religious dietary restrictions, Muslim and Jewish prisoners require special food; Hindu girls sometimes need special gym uniforms in school; and churches of every denomination need exceptions from employment discrimination laws to be able to hire clergy of their own religious faith.

In many cases religious freedom claims can be protected by appealing to legislatures or other political bodies. But as the Supreme Court candidly admitted, small and unpopular churches will be at a "relative disadvantage" if their rights are dependent on the political process. For this reason Congress is attempting to establish a procedure wherein every person or institution whose religious freedom is threatened by "neutral and generally applicable" laws can go to court, and the government will bear the burden of showing that the imposition on religious exercise is necessary to a "compelling" (meaning genuinely important) governmental interest.

Of course, the "compelling state interest" standard doesn't guarantee victory. Because the exercise of religion involves conduct, and conduct often affects other people, the government will frequently have a legitimate right to interfere. Religious motivation doesn't justify child sacrifice, stealing, or refusal to pay taxes. But persons of all religions--small as well as large, unfamiliar as well as mainstream--will have an equal chance to protect their rights before an impartial tribunal. This process, in turn, will make it far more likely that government officials will be willing to work out reasonable accommodations without the need to go to court.

This protection is what the proposed Religious Liberty Protection Act is supposed to reinstate. The bill enjoys widespread support--from the ACLU to the Southern Baptist Convention.

In testimony before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, however, several constitutional law professors have asserted that under establishment clause jurisprudence it is unconstitutional for Congress to protect the rights of religious conviction unless Congress extends similar protections to nonreligious conviction. Professors Chris Eisgruber and Larry Sager, for example, testified that it violates the establishment clause for the government to favor religious commitments over "other deep concerns and interests of members of our society," such as "political," "professional," "artistic or creative," and "family" commitments.

If Eisgruber and Sager are correct, then it would be unconstitutional to recognize a priest penitent privilege in the law of evidence without also recognizing privileges for newspaper reporters. It would mean that it is unconstitutional to excuse sabbatarians from unemployment compensation requirements (such as willingness to work on Saturday) unless we also excuse workers who wish to spend time with their families. It would mean that prisons cannot provide kosher or hallel meals unless they supply special diets to those who wish to engage in political boycotts of certain foods. Dry counties could not permit the serving of sacramental wine without also allowing alcoholic beverages for "artistic" purposes. If the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allows churches free rein to choose their priests and ministers on religious grounds, without governmental interference under the discrimination laws, then it must similarly exempt labor unions and secular charities from the discrimination laws.

If these results sound outlandish, it is because the constitutional argument is outlandish. The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Whatever protection the free exercise clause provides, that protection is applicable only to "religion," and not to moral, political, professional, artistic or creative, or family commitments. "Religion" is singled out for special treatment. If Professors Eisgruber and Sager were correct that the First Amendment forbids "singling out" the exercise of religion for special protections that are not given to "the other deep concerns and interests of members of our society," then the First Amendment violates itself.

The decision to single out religion--to treat religion differently from "other deep concerns and interests"--was deliberate. The framers considered a number of different formulations of what is now the First Amendment, some of which protected the "free exercise of religion," and some of which protected the "rights of conscience." Indeed, at one point the House of Representatives adopted a version that would have protected both: "Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed."

In dictionaries of the day the word "conscience" applied to secular as well as religious moral judgments. Samuel Johnson's great dictionary defined "conscience" as "[the] knowledge or faculty by which we judge of the goodness or wickedness of ourselves." Noah Webster's first dictionary defined it as "the faculty that decides on the right or wrong of actions in regard to one's self." Had the framers adopted the "liberty of conscience" formula, the First Amendment would have come closer to resembling the Eisgruber-Sager First Amendment. (It would still have been narrower. "Conscience" does not apply to all "deep concerns and interests," but only those rooted in the distinction between right and wrong.)

But the First Congress rejected the "conscience" language in favor of the free exercise of "religion," making clear that the protections of the amendment were applicable to religious commitments only. That did not prevent Congress or the state legislatures from protecting other forms of conscience as appropriate, but the Constitution itself gives "religion" special protection. James Madison explained the reason:

"The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. The right is in its nature an unalienable right. . . . It is unalienable also because what is here a right towards men is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of civil society."

This did not--and could not--mean that religious believers are exempt from law. But it did mean, in Madison's words, that a liberal state should make generous provision for the freedom of religion "in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or the public peace."

It was common for the 13 original states, even before passage of the First Amendment, to exempt believers from obligations known to be inconsistent with their religious convictions. The most common forms of accommodation had to do with military service, oath taking, and mandatory tithing. Even in the most desperate hours of the American Revolution, when the fate of the nation depended on its supply of young soldiers, the Continental Congress exempted religious pacifists (such as Quakers and Anabaptists) from military service, while calling upon them to serve the nation in ways "consistent with their religious principles." As George Washington wrote to the Quakers, "in my opinion the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness: and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due regard for the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit."

The modern Supreme Court has continued this tradition of religious accommodation. Although in recent years the Court has held that the First Amendment does not create a legal right to religious accommodation, it has consistently encouraged legislatures to do so--whether or not other nonreligious concerns and interests are similarly protected. In an important decision called Corporation of Presiding Bishop v. Amos, the Court unanimously upheld a federal statute exempting religious organizations from the religious nondiscrimination requirements of the Civil Rights Act. According to the Court, "it is a permissible legislative purpose to alleviate significant governmental interference with the ability of religious organizations to define and carry out their religious missions." Specifically rejecting the constitutional argument now made against the Religious Liberty Protection Act, the Court stated that "[where], as here, government acts with the proper purpose of lifting a regulation that burdens the exercise of religion, we see no reason to require that the exemption come packaged with benefits to secular entities."

In the face of this clear evidence from constitutional text, history, and precedent, opponents of the Religious Liberty Protection Act nonetheless claim that it is "unfair" to protect religious liberty without protecting other concerns. And of course, there are some specific cases where it would seem unfair--usually because there is a strong constitutional tradition for protection independent of religious motivation. Most would agree, for example, that parents should have a right to home-school their children, whether for religious reasons or not. That is because most of us believe in a right of parental control over education. Even most supporters of abortion rights would agree that doctors should not be forced to perform abortions, whether their objection is religious or secular. This is because they believe that the status of the fetus is a matter for individual judgment. But these examples should not be generalized into a rule requiring religious accommodations of all sorts to be extended to secular concerns. The state should be able to protect the confidentiality of communications made to a priest or minister without having to extend the privilege to your next-door neighbor.

In its broad form, the claim that religious commitments may not be given special protection overlooks the deep logic of the First Amendment. The religion clause of the First Amendment has two parts: the free exercise clause, which protects religious freedom, and the establishment clause, which prevents government support for religion. Those who complain that the free exercise clause singles out religion for special protection rarely note that the establishment clause also singles out religion--this time, preventing religious institutions and commitments from receiving governmental advocacy and support. The two halves of the religion clause create a balance.

By the same token, religious concerns would be protected by the Religious Liberty Protection Act while artistic and creative concerns would not. But art can be subsidized through the National Endowment for the Arts. A National Endowment for Religion would--and should--be unconstitutional. Religion is "singled out" in two ways--with respect to burdens and with respect to benefits.

That is the logic of the First Amendment. This logic could not be extended to all "other deep concerns and interests of members of our society." Churches would be protected by the Religious Liberty Protection Act and environmentalist groups (for example) would not. But environmentalist groups can go to Congress and obtain passage of environmental legislation. Comparable laws promoting religion would be flatly unconstitutional. Similarly, public schools can--and do--inculcate environmental beliefs and values in schoolchildren, in ways that would be unthinkable for religious beliefs and values.

Government is free to pass legislation promoting or disadvantaging most political, professional, or other interests in our society. That's politics. But government is not free to pass legislation promoting or disadvantaging religion. As nearly as is possible, consistent with its neutral and secular objectives, government should leave decisions about whether and how to practice religion to individuals and groups. The government should neither induce nor penalize the practice of religion.

Critics of the Religious Liberty Protection Act would preserve the establishment clause limits on the power of government to promote religion, while rejecting the free exercise clause limits on the power of government to burden religion. This would produce a lopsided, antireligious constitutional regime wholly unlike the benevolent neutrality toward religion envisioned by the framers. From the beginning this nation has recognized that each person's duty to God is a matter committed to his or her own conscience. Religion is exempt from the power of civil society except when interference is necessary to protect "private rights or the public peace." From the beginning, therefore, the states and the federal government have found ways to accommodate the free exercise of religion, insofar as "the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit." The Religious Liberty Protection Act stands in this great tradition, protecting religious freedom from government imposed burdens unless the government can show those burdens serve a compelling interest. The suggestion that protections for religious conscience can go no further than protections for political or professional concerns is contrary to a constitutional understanding as old as the nation itself.

Michael W. McConnell is presidential professor, University of Utah College of Law.

Article Author: Michael W. McConnell