Religion Clauses in the United States: Concept, Jurisprudence, Standards
With the widespread agreement regarding the value of the First Amendment religion clauses comes an equally broad disagreement as to what these clauses specifically require, permit and forbid. No agreement has been reached by those who have studied the religion clauses as regards its exact meaning and the paucity of records in Congress renders it difficult to ascertain its meaning. Consequently, the jurisprudence in this area is volatile and fraught with inconsistencies whether within a Court decision or across decisions.
One source of difficulty is the difference in the context in which the First Amendment was adopted and in which it is applied today. In the 1780s, religion played a primary role in social life – i.e., family responsibilities, education, health care, poor relief, and other aspects of social life with significant moral dimension – while government played a supportive and indirect role by maintaining conditions in which these activities may be carried out by religious or religiously-motivated associations. Today, government plays this primary role and religion plays the supportive role. Government runs even family planning, sex education, adoption and foster care programs. Stated otherwise and with some exaggeration, “(w)hereas two centuries ago, in matters of social life which have a significant moral dimension, government was the handmaid of religion, today religion, in its social responsibilities, as contrasted with personal faith and collective worship, is the handmaid of government.” With government regulation of individual conduct having become more pervasive, inevitably some of those regulations would reach conduct that for some individuals are religious. As a result, increasingly, there may be inadvertent collisions between purely secular government actions and religion clause values.
Parallel to this expansion of government has been the expansion of religious organizations in population, physical institutions, types of activities undertaken, and sheer variety of denominations, sects and cults. Churches run day-care centers, retirement homes, hospitals, schools at all levels, research centers, settlement houses, halfway houses for prisoners, sports facilities, theme parks, publishing houses and mass media programs. In these activities, religious organizations complement and compete with commercial enterprises, thus blurring the line between many types of activities undertaken by religious groups and secular activities. Churches have also concerned themselves with social and political issues as a necessary outgrowth of religious faith as witnessed in pastoral letters on war and peace, economic justice, and human life, or in ringing affirmations for racial equality on religious foundations. Inevitably, these developments have brought about substantial entanglement of religion and government. Likewise, the growth in population density, mobility and diversity has significantly changed the environment in which religious organizations and activities exist and the laws affecting them are made. It is no longer easy for individuals to live solely among their own kind or to shelter their children from exposure to competing values. The result is disagreement over what laws should require, permit or prohibit; and agreement that if the rights of believers as well as non-believers are all to be respected and given their just due, a rigid, wooden interpretation of the religion clauses that is blind to societal and political realities must be avoided.
Religion cases arise from different circumstances. The more obvious ones arise from a government action which purposely aids or inhibits religion. These cases are easier to resolve as, in general, these actions are plainly unconstitutional. Still, this kind of cases poses difficulty in ascertaining proof of intent to aid or inhibit religion. The more difficult religion clause cases involve government action with a secular purpose and general applicability which incidentally or inadvertently aids or burdens religious exercise. In Free Exercise Clause cases, these government actions are referred to as those with “burdensome effect” on religious exercise even if the government action is not religiously motivated. Ideally, the legislature would recognize the religions and their practices and would consider them, when practical, in enacting laws of general application. But when the legislature fails to do so, religions that are threatened and burdened turn to the courts for protection. Most of these free exercise claims brought to the Court are for exemption, not invalidation of the facially neutral law that has a “burdensome” effect.
With the change in political and social context and the increasing inadvertent collisions between law and religious exercise, the definition of religion for purposes of interpreting the religion clauses has also been modified to suit current realities. Defining religion is a difficult task for even theologians, philosophers and moralists cannot agree on a comprehensive definition. Nevertheless, courts must define religion for constitutional and other legal purposes. It was in the 1890 case of Davis v. Beason that the United States Supreme Court first had occasion to define religion, viz:
The term ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will. It is often confounded with the cultus or form of worship of a particular sect, but is distinguishable from the latter. The First Amendment to the Constitution, in declaring that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or forbidding the free exercise thereof, was intended to allow everyone under the jurisdiction of the United States to entertain such notions respecting his relations to his Maker and the duties they impose as may be approved by his judgment and conscience, and to exhibit his sentiments in such form of worship as he may think proper, not injurious to the equal rights of others, and to prohibit legislation for the support of any religious tenets, or the modes of worship of any sect.
The definition was clearly theistic which was reflective of the popular attitudes in 1890.
In 1944, the Court stated in United States v. Ballard that the free exercise of religion “embraces the right to maintain theories of life and of death and of the hereafter which are rank heresy to followers of the orthodox faiths.” By the 1960s, American pluralism in religion had flourished to include non-theistic creeds from Asia such as Buddhism and Taoism. In 1961, the Court, in Torcaso v. Watkins, expanded the term “religion” to non-theistic beliefs such as Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, and Secular Humanism. Four years later, the Court faced a definitional problem in United States v. Seeger which involved four men who claimed “conscientious objector” status in refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. One of the four, Seeger, was not a member of any organized religion opposed to war, but when specifically asked about his belief in a Supreme Being, Seeger stated that “you could call (it) a belief in a Supreme Being or God. These just do not happen to be the words that I use.” Forest Peter, another one of the four claimed that after considerable meditation and reflection “on values derived from the Western religious and philosophical tradition,” he determined that it would be “a violation of his moral code to take human life and that he considered this belief superior to any obligation to the state.” The Court avoided a constitutional question by broadly interpreting not the Free Exercise Clause, but the statutory definition of religion in the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1940 which exempt from combat anyone “who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.” Speaking for the Court, Justice Clark ruled, viz:
Congress, in using the expression ‘Supreme Being’ rather than the designation ‘God,’ was merely clarifying the meaning of religious tradition and belief so as to embrace all religions and to exclude essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views (and) the test of belief ‘in relation to a Supreme Being’ is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to the orthodox belief in God. (emphasis supplied)
The Court was convinced that Seeger, Peter and the others were conscientious objectors possessed of such religious belief and training.
Federal and state courts have expanded the definition of religion in Seeger to include even non-theistic beliefs such as Taoism or Zen Buddhism. It has been proposed that basically, a creed must meet four criteria to qualify as religion under the First Amendment. First, there must be belief in God or some parallel belief that occupies a central place in the believer’s life. Second, the religion must involve a moral code transcending individual belief, i.e., it cannot be purely subjective. Third, a demonstrable sincerity in belief is necessary, but the court must not inquire into the truth or reasonableness of the belief. Fourth, there must be some associational ties, although there is also a view that religious beliefs held by a single person rather than being part of the teachings of any kind of group or sect are entitled to the protection of the Free Exercise Clause.
Defining religion is only the beginning of the difficult task of deciding religion clause cases. Having hurdled the issue of definition, the court then has to draw lines to determine what is or is not permissible under the religion clauses. In this task, the purpose of the clauses is the yardstick. Their purpose is singular; they are two sides of the same coin. In devoting two clauses to religion, the Founders were stating not two opposing thoughts that would cancel each other out, but two complementary thoughts that apply in different ways in different circumstances. The purpose of the religion clauses – both in the restriction it imposes on the power of the government to interfere with the free exercise of religion and the limitation on the power of government to establish, aid, and support religion – is the protection and promotion of religious liberty. The end, the goal, and the rationale of the religion clauses is this liberty. Both clauses were adopted to prevent government imposition of religious orthodoxy; the great evil against which they are directed is government-induced homogeneity. The Free Exercise Clause directly articulates the common objective of the two clauses and the Establishment Clause specifically addresses a form of interference with religious liberty with which the Framers were most familiar and for which government historically had demonstrated a propensity. In other words, free exercise is the end, proscribing establishment is a necessary means to this end to protect the rights of those who might dissent from whatever religion is established. It has even been suggested that the sense of the First Amendment is captured if it were to read as “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or otherwise prohibiting the free exercise thereof” because the fundamental and single purpose of the two religious clauses is to “avoid any infringement on the free exercise of religions” Thus, the Establishment Clause mandates separation of church and state to protect each from the other, in service of the larger goal of preserving religious liberty. The effect of the separation is to limit the opportunities for any religious group to capture the state apparatus to the disadvantage of those of other faiths, or of no faith at all because history has shown that religious fervor conjoined with state power is likely to tolerate far less religious disagreement and disobedience from those who hold different beliefs than an enlightened secular state. In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, the two clauses are interrelated, viz: “(t)he structure of our government has, for the preservation of civil liberty, rescued the temporal institutions from religious interference. On the other hand, it has secured religious liberty from the invasion of the civil authority.”
In upholding religious liberty as the end goal in religious clause cases, the line the court draws to ensure that government does not establish and instead remains neutral toward religion is not absolutely straight. Chief Justice Burger explains, viz:
The course of constitutional neutrality in this area cannot be an absolutely straight line; rigidity could well defeat the basic purpose of these provisions, which is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded and none inhibited. (emphasis supplied)
Consequently, U.S. jurisprudence has produced two identifiably different, even opposing, strains of jurisprudence on the religion clauses: separation (in the form of strict separation or the tamer version of strict neutrality or separation) and benevolent neutrality or accommodation. A view of the landscape of U.S. religion clause cases would be useful in understanding these two strains, the scope of protection of each clause, and the tests used in religious clause cases. Most of these cases are cited as authorities in Philippine religion clause cases.
A. Free Exercise Clause
The Court first interpreted the Free Exercise Clause in the 1878 case of Reynolds v. United States. This landmark case involved Reynolds, a Mormon who proved that it was his religious duty to have several wives and that the failure to practice polygamy by male members of his religion when circumstances would permit would be punished with damnation in the life to come. Reynolds’ act of contracting a second marriage violated Section 5352, Revised Statutes prohibiting and penalizing bigamy, for which he was convicted. The Court affirmed Reynolds’ conviction, using what in jurisprudence would be called the belief-action test which allows absolute protection to belief but not to action. It cited Jefferson’s Bill Establishing Religious Freedom which, according to the Court, declares “the true distinction between what properly belongs to the Church and what to the State.” The bill, making a distinction between belief and action, states in relevant part, viz:
That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty;
that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order. (emphasis supplied)
The Court then held, viz:
Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order. . .
Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifice were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband, would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?
So here, as a law of the organization of society under the exclusive dominion of the United States, it is provided that plural marriages shall not be allowed. Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.
The construct was thus simple: the state was absolutely prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause from regulating individual religious beliefs, but placed no restriction on the ability of the state to regulate religiously motivated conduct. It was logical for belief to be accorded absolute protection because any statute designed to prohibit a particular religious belief unaccompanied by any conduct would most certainly be motivated only by the legislature’s preference of a competing religious belief. Thus, all cases of regulation of belief would amount to regulation of religion for religious reasons violative of the Free Exercise Clause. On the other hand, most state regulations of conduct are for public welfare purposes and have nothing to do with the legislature’s religious preferences. Any burden on religion that results from state regulation of conduct arises only when particular individuals are engaging in the generally regulated conduct because of their particular religious beliefs. These burdens are thus usually inadvertent and did not figure in the belief-action test. As long as the Court found that regulation address action rather than belief, the Free Exercise Clause did not pose any problem. The Free Exercise Clause thus gave no protection against the proscription of actions even if considered central to a religion unless the legislature formally outlawed the belief itself.
This belief-action distinction was held by the Court for some years as shown by cases where the Court upheld other laws which burdened the practice of the Mormon religion by imposing various penalties on polygamy such as the Davis case and Church of Latter Day Saints v. United States. However, more than a century since Reynolds was decided, the Court hasexpanded the scope of protection from belief to speech and conduct. But while the belief-action test has been abandoned, the rulings in the earlier Free Exercise cases have gone unchallenged. The belief-action distinction is still of some importance though as there remains an absolute prohibition of governmental proscription of beliefs.
The Free Exercise Clause accords absolute protection to individual religious convictions and beliefs and proscribes government from questioning a person’s beliefs or imposing penalties or disabilities based solely on those beliefs. The Clause extends protection to both beliefs and unbelief. Thus, in Torcaso v. Watkins, a unanimous Court struck down a state law requiring as a qualification for public office an oath declaring belief in the existence of God. The protection also allows courts to look into the good faith of a person in his belief, but prohibitsinquiry into the truth of a person’s religious beliefs. As held in United States v. Ballard, “(h)eresy trials are foreign to the Constitution. Men may believe what they cannot prove. They may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs.”
Next to belief which enjoys virtually absolute protection, religious speech and expressive religious conduct are accorded the highest degree of protection. Thus, in the 1940 case of Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Court struck down a state law prohibiting door-to-door solicitation for any religious or charitable cause without prior approval of a state agency. The law was challenged by Cantwell, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses which is committed to active proselytizing. The Court invalidated the state statute as the prior approval necessary was held to be a censorship of religion prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause. The Court held, viz:
In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his point of view, the pleader, as we know, resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of citizens of a democracy.
Cantwell took a step forward from the protection afforded by the Reynolds case in that it not only affirmed protection of belief but also freedom to act for the propagation of that belief, viz:
Thus the Amendment embraces two concepts – freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be. Conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society. . . In every case, the power to regulate must be so exercised as not, in attaining a permissible end, unduly to infringe the protected freedom. (emphasis supplied)
The Court stated, however, that government had the power to regulate the times, places, and manner of solicitation on the streets and assure the peace and safety of the community.
Three years after Cantwell, the Court in Douglas v. City of Jeanette, ruled that police could not prohibit members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses from peaceably and orderly proselytizing on Sundays merely because other citizens complained. In another case likewise involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Niemotko v. Maryland, the Court unanimously held unconstitutional a city council’s denial of a permit to the Jehovah’s Witnesses to use the city park for a public meeting. The city council’s refusal was because of the “unsatisfactory” answers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to questions about Catholicism, military service, and other issues. The denial of the public forum was considered blatant censorship. While protected, religious speech in the public forum is still subject to reasonable time, place and manner regulations similar to non-religious speech. Religious proselytizing in congested areas, for example, may be limited to certain areas to maintain the safe and orderly flow of pedestrians and vehicular traffic as held in the case of Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
The least protected under the Free Exercise Clause is religious conduct, usually in the form of unconventional religious practices. Protection in this realm depends on the character of the action and the government rationale for regulating the action. The Mormons’ religious conduct of polygamy is an example of unconventional religious practice. As discussed in the Reynolds case above, the Court did not afford protection to the practice. Reynolds was reiterated in the 1890 case of Davis again involving Mormons, where the Court held, viz: “(c)rime is not the less odious because sanctioned by what any particular sect may designate as religion.”
The belief-action test in Reynolds and Davis proved unsatisfactory. Under this test, regulation of religiously dictated conduct would be upheld no matter how central the conduct was to the exercise of religion and no matter how insignificant was the government’s non-religious regulatory interest so long as the government is proscribing action and not belief. Thus, the Court abandoned the simplistic belief-action distinction and instead recognized the deliberate-inadvertent distinction, i.e., the distinction between deliberate state interference of religious exercise for religious reasons which was plainly unconstitutional and government’s inadvertent interference with religion in pursuing some secular objective. In the 1940 case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the Court upheld a local school board requirement that all public school students participate in a daily flag salute program, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were forced to salute the American flag in violation of their religious training, which considered flag salute to be worship of a “graven image.” The Court recognized that the general requirement of compulsory flag salute inadvertently burdened the Jehovah Witnesses’ practice of their religion, but justified the government regulation as an appropriate means of attaining national unity, which was the “basis of national security.” Thus, although the Court was already aware of the deliberate-inadvertent distinction in government interference with religion, it continued to hold that the Free Exercise Clause presented no problem to interference with religion that was inadvertent no matter how serious the interference, no matter how trivial the state’s non-religious objectives, and no matter how many alternative approaches were available to the state to pursue its objectives with less impact on religion, so long as government was acting in pursuit of a secular objective.
Three years later, the Gobitis decision was overturned in West Virginia v. Barnette which involved a similar set of facts and issue. The Court recognized that saluting the flag, in connection with the pledges, was a form of utterance and the flag salute program was a compulsion of students to declare a belief. The Court ruled that “compulsory unification of opinions leads only to the unanimity of the graveyard” and exempt the students who were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses from saluting the flag. A close scrutiny of the case, however, would show that it was decided not on the issue of religious conduct as the Court said, “(n)or does the issue as we see it turn on one’s possession of particular religious views or the sincerity with which they are held. While religion supplies appellees’ motive for enduring the discomforts of making the issue in this case, many citizens who do not share these religious views hold such a compulsory rite to infringe constitutional liberty of the individual.” (emphasis supplied) The Court pronounced, however, that, “freedoms of speech and of press, of assembly, and of worship . . . are susceptible only of restriction only to prevent grave and immediate danger to interests which the state may lawfully protect.” The Court seemed to recognize the extent to which its approach in Gobitis subordinated the religious liberty of political minorities – a specially protected constitutional value – to the common everyday economic and public welfare objectives of the majority in the legislature. This time, even inadvertent interference with religion must pass judicial scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause with only grave and immediate danger sufficing to override religious liberty. But the seeds of this heightened scrutiny would only grow to a full flower in the 1960s.
Nearly a century after Reynolds employed the belief-action test, the Warren Court began the modern free exercise jurisprudence. A two-part balancing test was established inBraunfeld v. Brown where the Court considered the constitutionality of applying Sunday closing laws to Orthodox Jews whose beliefs required them to observe another day as the Sabbath and abstain from commercial activity on Saturday. Chief Justice Warren, writing for the Court, found that the law placed a severe burden on Sabattarian retailers. He noted, however, that since the burden was the indirect effect of a law with a secular purpose, it would violate the Free Exercise Clause only if there were alternative ways of achieving the state’s interest. He employed a two-part balancing test of validity where the first step was for plaintiff to show that the regulation placed a real burden on his religious exercise. Next, the burden would be upheld only if the state showed that it was pursuing an overriding secular goal by the means which imposed the least burden on religious practices. The Court found that the state had an overriding secular interest in setting aside a single day for rest, recreation and tranquility and there was no alternative means of pursuing this interest but to require Sunday as a uniform rest day.
Two years after came the stricter compelling state interest test in the 1963 case of Sherbert v. Verner. This test was similar to the two-part balancing test in Braunfeld, but this latter test stressed that the state interest was not merely any colorable state interest, but must be paramount and compelling to override the free exercise claim. In this case, Sherbert, a Seventh Day Adventist, claimed unemployment compensation under the law as her employment was terminated for refusal to work on Saturdays on religious grounds. Her claim was denied. She sought recourse in the Supreme Court. In laying down the standard for determining whether the denial of benefits could withstand constitutional scrutiny, the Court ruled, viz:
Plainly enough, appellee’s conscientious objection to Saturday work constitutes no conduct prompted by religious principles of a kind within the reach of state legislation. If, therefore, the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court is to withstand appellant’s constitutional challenge, it must be either because her disqualification as a beneficiary represents no infringement by the State of her constitutional rights of free exercise, or because any incidental burden on the free exercise of appellant’s religion may be justified by a ‘compelling state interest in the regulation of a subject within the State’s constitutional power to regulate. . .’ NAACP v. Button, 371 US 415, 438 9 L ed 2d 405, 421, 83 S Ct 328. (emphasis supplied)
The Court stressed that in the area of religious liberty, it is basic that it is not sufficient to merely show a rational relationship of the substantial infringement to the religious right and a colorable state interest. “(I)n this highly sensitive constitutional area, ‘[o]nly the gravest abuses, endangering paramount interests, give occasion for permissible limitation.’ Thomas v. Collins, 323 US 516, 530, 89 L ed 430, 440, 65 S Ct 315.” The Court found that there was no such compelling state interest to override Sherbert’s religious liberty. It added that even if the state could show that Sherbert’s exemption would pose serious detrimental effects to the unemployment compensation fund and scheduling of work, it was incumbent upon the state to show thatno alternative means of regulations would address such detrimental effects without infringing religious liberty. The state, however, did not discharge this burden. The Court thus carved out for Sherbert an exemption from the Saturday work requirement that caused her disqualification from claiming the unemployment benefits. The Court reasoned that upholding the denial of Sherbert’s benefits would force her to choose between receiving benefits and following her religion. This choice placed “the same kind of burden upon the free exercise of religion as would a fine imposed against (her) for her Saturday worship.” This germinal case of Sherbert firmly established the exemption doctrine,  viz:
It is certain that not every conscience can be accommodated by all the laws of the land; but when general laws conflict with scruples of conscience, exemptions ought to be granted unless some ‘compelling state interest’ intervenes.
Thus, in a short period of twenty-three years from Gobitis to Sherbert (or even as early as Braunfeld), the Court moved from the doctrine that inadvertent or incidental interferences with religion raise no problem under the Free Exercise Clause to the doctrine that such interferences violate the Free Exercise Clause in the absence of a compelling state interest – the highest level of constitutional scrutiny short of a holding of a per se violation. Thus, the problem posed by the belief-action test and the deliberate-inadvertent distinction was addressed.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s under the Warren, and afterwards, the Burger Court, the rationale in Sherbert continued to be applied. In Thomas v. Review Board and Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Division, for example, the Court reiterated the exemption doctrine and held that in the absence of a compelling justification, a state could not withhold unemployment compensation from an employee who resigned or was discharged due to unwillingness to depart from religious practices and beliefs that conflicted with job requirements. But not every governmental refusal to allow an exemption from a regulation which burdens a sincerely held religious belief has been invalidated, even though strict or heightened scrutiny is applied. InUnited States v. Lee, for instance, the Court using strict scrutiny and referring to Thomas, upheld the federal government’s refusal to exempt Amish employers who requested for exemption from paying social security taxes on wages on the ground of religious beliefs. The Court held that “(b)ecause the broad public interest in maintaining a sound tax system is of such a high order, religious belief in conflict with the payment of taxes affords no basis for resisting the tax.” It reasoned that unlike in Sherbert, an exemption would significantly impair government’s achievement of its objective – “the fiscal vitality of the social security system;” mandatory participation is indispensable to attain this objective. The Court noted that if an exemption were made, it would be hard to justify not allowing a similar exemption from general federal taxes where the taxpayer argues that his religious beliefs require him to reduce or eliminate his payments so that he will not contribute to the government’s war-related activities, for example.
The strict scrutiny and compelling state interest test significantly increased the degree of protection afforded to religiously motivated conduct. While not affording absolute immunity to religious activity, a compelling secular justification was necessary to uphold public policies that collided with religious practices. Although the members of the Court often disagreed over which governmental interests should be considered compelling, thereby producing dissenting and separate opinions in religious conduct cases, this general test established a strong presumption in favor of the free exercise of religion.
Heightened scrutiny was also used in the 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder where the Court upheld the religious practice of the Old Order Amish faith over the state’s compulsory high school attendance law. The Amish parents in this case did not permit secular education of their children beyond the eighth grade. Chief Justice Burger, writing for the majority, held, viz:
It follows that in order for Wisconsin to compel school attendance beyond the eighth grade against a claim that such attendance interferes with the practice of a legitimate religious belief, it must appear either that the State does not deny the free exercise of religious belief by its requirement, or that there is a state interest of sufficient magnitude to override the interest claiming protection under the Free Exercise Clause. Long before there was general acknowledgement of the need for universal education, the Religion Clauses had specially and firmly fixed the right of free exercise of religious beliefs, and buttressing this fundamental right was an equally firm, even if less explicit, prohibition against the establishment of any religion. The values underlying these two provisions relating to religion have been zealously protected, sometimes even at the expense of other interests of admittedly high social importance. . .
The essence of all that has been said and written on the subject is that only those interests of the highest order and those not otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion.. .
. . . our decisions have rejected the idea that that religiously grounded conduct is always outside the protection of the Free Exercise Clause. It is true that activities of individuals, even when religiously based, are often subject to regulation by the States in the exercise of their undoubted power to promote the health, safety, and general welfare, or the Federal government in the exercise of its delegated powers . . . But to agree that religiously grounded conduct must often be subject to the broad police power of the State is not to deny that there are areas of conduct protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and thus beyond the power of the State to control, even under regulations of general applicability. . . .This case, therefore, does not become easier because respondents were convicted for their “actions” in refusing to send their children to the public high school; in this context belief and action cannot be neatly confined in logic-tight compartments. . . 
The onset of the 1990s, however, saw a major setback in the protection afforded by the Free Exercise Clause. In Employment Division, Oregon Department of Human Resources v. Smith, the sharply divided Rehnquist Court dramatically departed from the heightened scrutiny and compelling justification approach and imposed serious limits on the scope of protection of religious freedom afforded by the First Amendment. In this case, the well-established practice of the Native American Church, a sect outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream of American religion, came in conflict with the state’s interest in prohibiting the use of illicit drugs. Oregon’s controlled substances statute made the possession of peyote a criminal offense. Two members of the church, Smith and Black, worked as drug rehabilitation counselors for a private social service agency in Oregon. Along with other church members, Smith and Black ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, at a sacramental ceremony practiced by Native Americans for hundreds of years. The social service agency fired Smith and Black citing their use of peyote as “job-related misconduct”. They applied for unemployment compensation, but the Oregon Employment Appeals Board denied their application as they were discharged for job-related misconduct. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, ruled that “if prohibiting the exercise of religion . . . is . . . merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid law, the First Amendment has not been offended.” In other words, the Free Exercise Clause would be offended only if a particular religious practice were singled out for proscription. The majority opinion relied heavily on the Reynolds case and in effect, equated Oregon’s drug prohibition law with the anti-polygamy statute in Reynolds. The relevant portion of the majority opinion held, viz:
We have never invalidated any governmental action on the basis of the Sherbert test except the denial of unemployment compensation.
Even if we were inclined to breathe into Sherbert some life beyond the unemployment compensation field, we would not apply it to require exemptions from a generally applicable criminal law. . .
We conclude today that the sounder approach, and the approach in accord with the vast majority of our precedents, is to hold the test inapplicable to such challenges. The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of public policy, “cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development.” . . .To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs except where the State’s interest is “compelling” – permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, “to become a law unto himself,” . . . – contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.
Justice O’Connor wrote a concurring opinion pointing out that the majority’s rejection of the compelling governmental interest test was the most controversial part of the decision. Although she concurred in the result that the Free Exercise Clause had not been offended, she sharply criticized the majority opinion as a dramatic departure “from well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence. . . and . . . (as) incompatible with our Nation’s fundamental commitment to religious liberty.” This portion of her concurring opinion was supported by Justices Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun who dissented from the Court’s decision. Justice O’Connor asserted that “(t)he compelling state interest test effectuates the First Amendment’s command that religious liberty is an independent liberty, that it occupies a preferred position, and that the Court will not permit encroachments upon this liberty, whether direct or indirect, unless required by clear and compelling government interest ‘of the highest order’.” Justice Blackmun registered a separate dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall. He charged the majority with “mischaracterizing” precedents and “overturning. . . settled law concerning the Religion Clauses of our Constitution.” He pointed out that the Native American Church restricted and supervised the sacramental use of peyote. Thus, the state had no significant health or safety justification for regulating the sacramental drug use. He also observed that Oregon had not attempted to prosecute Smith or Black, or any Native Americans, for that matter, for the sacramental use of peyote. In conclusion, he said that “Oregon’s interest in enforcing its drug laws against religious use of peyote (was) not sufficiently compelling to outweigh respondents’ right to the free exercise of their religion.”
The Court went back to the Reynolds and Gobitis doctrine in Smith. The Court’s standard in Smith virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify with a compelling state interest the burdens on religious exercise imposed by laws neutral toward religion. The Smith doctrine is highly unsatisfactory in several respects and has been criticized as exhibiting a shallow understanding of free exercise jurisprudence. First, the First amendment was intended to protect minority religions from the tyranny of the religious and political majority. A deliberate regulatory interference with minority religious freedom is the worst form of this tyranny. But regulatory interference with a minority religion as a result of ignorance or sensitivity of the religious and political majority is no less an interference with the minority’s religious freedom. If the regulation had instead restricted the majority’s religious practice, the majoritarian legislative process would in all probability have modified or rejected the regulation. Thus, the imposition of the political majority’s non-religious objectives at the expense of the minority’s religious interests implements the majority’s religious viewpoint at the expense of the minority’s. Second, government impairment of religious liberty would most often be of the inadvertent kind as in Smith considering the political culture where direct and deliberate regulatory imposition of religious orthodoxy is nearly inconceivable. If the Free Exercise Clause could not afford protection to inadvertent interference, it would be left almost meaningless. Third, the Reynolds-Gobitis-Smith doctrine simply defies common sense. The state should not be allowed to interfere with the most deeply held fundamental religious convictions of an individual in order to pursue some trivial state economic or bureaucratic objective. This is especially true when there are alternative approaches for the state to effectively pursue its objective without serious inadvertent impact on religion.
Thus, the Smith decision has been criticized not only for increasing the power of the state over religion but as discriminating in favor of mainstream religious groups against smaller, more peripheral groups who lack legislative clout, contrary to the original theory of the First Amendment. Undeniably, claims for judicial exemption emanate almost invariably from relatively politically powerless minority religions and Smith virtually wiped out their judicial recourse for exemption. Thus, the Smith decision elicited much negative public reaction especially from the religious community, and commentaries insisted that the Court was allowing the Free Exercise Clause to disappear. So much was the uproar that a majority in Congress was convinced to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. The RFRA prohibited government at all levels from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion, even if such burden resulted from a generally applicable rule, unless the government could demonstrate a compelling state interest and the rule constituted the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.RFRA, in effect, sought to overturn the substance of the Smith ruling and restore the status quo prior to Smith. Three years after the RFRA was enacted, however, the Court, dividing 6 to 3, declared the RFRA unconstitutional in City of Boerne v. Flores. The Court ruled that “RFRA contradicts vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal balance.” It emphasized the primacy of its role as interpreter of the Constitution and unequivocally rejected, on broad institutional grounds, a direct congressional challenge of final judicial authority on a question of constitutional interpretation.
After Smith came Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah which was ruled consistent with the Smith doctrine. This case involved animal sacrifice of the Santeria, a blend of Roman Catholicism and West African religions brought to the Carribean by East African slaves. An ordinance made it a crime to “unnecessarily kill, torment, torture, or mutilate an animal in public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption.” The ordinance came as a response to the local concern over the sacrificial practices of the Santeria. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, carefully pointed out that the questioned ordinance was not a generally applicable criminal prohibition, but instead singled out practitioners of the Santeria in that it forbade animal slaughter only insofar as it took place within the context of religious rituals.
It may be seen from the foregoing cases that under the Free Exercise Clause, religious belief is absolutely protected, religious speech and proselytizing are highly protected but subject to restraints applicable to non-religious speech, and unconventional religious practice receives less protection; nevertheless conduct, even if its violates a law, could be accorded protection as shown in Wisconsin.
B. Establishment Clause
The Court’s first encounter with the Establishment Clause was in the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education. Prior cases had made passing reference to the Establishment Clause and raised establishment questions but were decided on other grounds. It was in the Everson case that the U.S. Supreme Court adopted Jefferson’s metaphor of “a wall of separation between church and state” as encapsulating the meaning of the Establishment Clause. The often and loosely used phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. It became part of U.S. jurisprudence when the Court in the 1878 case of Reynolds v. United States quoted Jefferson’s famous letter of 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in narrating the history of the religion clauses, viz:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the Government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. (emphasis supplied)
Chief Justice Waite, speaking for the majority, then added, “(c)oming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.”
The interpretation of the Establishment Clause has in large part been in cases involving education, notably state aid to private religious schools and prayer in public schools. In Everson v. Board of Education, for example, the issue was whether a New Jersey local school board could reimburse parents for expenses incurred in transporting their children to and from Catholic schools. The reimbursement was part of a general program under which all parents of children in public schools and nonprofit private schools, regardless of religion, were entitled to reimbursement for transportation costs. Justice Hugo Black, writing for a sharply divided Court, justified the reimbursements on the child benefit theory, i.e., that the school board was merely furthering the state’s legitimate interest in getting children “regardless of their religion, safely and expeditiously to and from accredited schools.” The Court, after narrating the history of the First Amendment in Virginia, interpreted the Establishment Clause, viz:
The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The Court then ended the opinion, viz:
The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. New Jersey has not breached it here.
By 1971, the Court integrated the different elements of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence that evolved in the 1950s and 1960s and laid down a three-pronged test in Lemon v. Kurtzman in determining the constitutionality of policies challenged under the Establishment Clause. This case involved a Pennsylvania statutory program providing publicly funded reimbursement for the cost of teachers’ salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials in secular subjects and a Rhode Island statute providing salary supplements to teachers in parochial schools. The Lemon test requires a challenged policy to meet the following criteria to pass scrutiny under the Establishment Clause. “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its primary or principal effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (Board of Education v. Allen, 392 US 236, 243, 20 L Ed 2d 1060, 1065, 88 S Ct 1923 ); finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive entanglement with religion.’ (Walz v.Tax Commission, 397 US 664, 668, 25 L Ed 2d 697, 701, 90 S Ct 1409 )”(emphasis supplied) Using this test, the Court held that the Pennsylvania statutory program and Rhode Island statute were unconstitutional as fostering excessive entanglement between government and religion.
The most controversial of the education cases involving the Establishment Clause are the school prayer decisions. “Few decisions of the modern Supreme Court have been criticized more intensely than the school prayer decisions of the early 1960s.” In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, the Court invalidated a New York Board of Regents policy that established the voluntary recitation of a brief generic prayer by children in the public schools at the start of each school day. The majority opinion written by Justice Black stated that “in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government.” In fact, history shows that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons that caused many of the early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. The Court called to mind that the first and most immediate purpose of the Establishment Clause rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. The following year, the Engel decision was reinforced in Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett where the Court struck down the practice of Bible reading and the recitation of the Lord’s prayer in the Pennsylvania and Maryland schools. The Court held that to withstand the strictures of the Establishment Clause, a statute must have a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion. It reiterated, viz:
The wholesome ‘neutrality’ of which this Court’s cases speak thus stems from a recognition of the teachings of history that powerful sects or groups might bring about a fusion of governmental and religious functions or a concert or dependency of one upon the other to the end that official support of the State of Federal Government would be placed behind the tenets of one or of all orthodoxies. This the Establishment Clause prohibits. And a further reason for neutrality is found in the Free Exercise Clause, which recognizes the value of religious training, teaching and observance and, more particularly, the right of every person to freely choose his own course with reference thereto, free of any compulsion from the state.
The school prayer decisions drew furious reactions. Religious leaders and conservative members of Congress and resolutions passed by several state legislatures condemned these decisions. On several occasions, constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress to overturn the school prayer decisions. Still, the Court has maintained its position and has in fact reinforced it in the 1985 case of Wallace v. Jaffree where the Court struck down an Alabama law that required public school students to observe a moment of silence “for the purpose of meditation or voluntary prayer” at the start of each school day.
Religious instruction in public schools has also pressed the Court to interpret the Establishment Clause. Optional religious instruction within public school premises and instructional time were declared offensive of the Establishment Clause in the 1948 case of McCollum v. Board of Education, decided just a year after the seminal Everson case. In this case, interested members of the Jewish, Roman Catholic and a few Protestant faiths obtained permission from the Board of Education to offer classes in religious instruction to public school students in grades four to nine. Religion classes were attended by pupils whose parents signed printed cards requesting that their children be permitted to attend. The classes were taught in three separate groups by Protestant teachers, Catholic priests and a Jewish rabbi and were held weekly from thirty to forty minutes during regular class hours in the regular classrooms of the school building. The religious teachers were employed at no expense to the school authorities but they were subject to the approval and supervision of the superintendent of schools. Students who did not choose to take religious instruction were required to leave their classrooms and go to some other place in the school building for their secular studies while those who were released from their secular study for religious instruction were required to attend the religious classes. The Court held that the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction and the close cooperation between the school authorities and the religious council in promoting religious education amounted to a prohibited use of tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups spread their faith. The Court rejected the claim that the Establishment Clause only prohibited government preference of one religion over another and not an impartial governmental assistance of all religions. In Zorach v. Clauson, however, the Court upheld released time programs allowing students in public schools to leave campus upon parental permission to attend religious services while other students attended study hall. Justice Douglas, the writer of the opinion, stressed that “(t)he First Amendment does not require that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State.” The Court distinguished Zorach from McCollum, viz:
In the McCollum case the classrooms were used for religious instruction and the force of the public school was used to promote that instruction. . . We follow the McCollum case. But we cannot expand it to cover the present released time program unless separation of Church and State means that public institutions can make no adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people. We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion.
In the area of government displays or affirmations of belief, the Court has given leeway to religious beliefs and practices which have acquired a secular meaning and have become deeply entrenched in history. For instance, in McGowan v. Maryland, the Court upheld laws that prohibited certain businesses from operating on Sunday despite the obvious religious underpinnings of the restrictions. Citing the secular purpose of the Sunday closing laws and treating as incidental the fact that this day of rest happened to be the day of worship for most Christians, the Court held, viz:
It is common knowledge that the first day of the week has come to have special significance as a rest day in this country. People of all religions and people with no religion regard Sunday as a time for family activity, for visiting friends and relatives, for later sleeping, for passive and active entertainments, for dining out, and the like.
In the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, the Court refused to invalidate Nebraska’s policy of beginning legislative sessions with prayers offered by a Protestant chaplain retained at the taxpayers’ expense. The majority opinion did not rely on the Lemon test and instead drew heavily from history and the need for accommodation of popular religious beliefs, viz:
In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an “establishment” of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country. As Justice Douglas observed, “(w)e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” (Zorach c. Clauson, 343 US 306, 313 ) (emphasis supplied)
Some view the Marsh ruling as a mere aberration as the Court would “inevitably be embarrassed if it were to attempt to strike down a practice that occurs in nearly every legislature in the United States, including the U.S. Congress.” That Marsh was not an aberration is suggested by subsequent cases. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, the Court upheld a city-sponsored nativity scene in Rhode Island. By a 5-4 decision, the majority opinion hardly employed the Lemon test and again relied on history and the fact that the creche had become a “neutral harbinger of the holiday season” for many, rather than a symbol of Christianity.
The Establishment Clause has also been interpreted in the area of tax exemption. By tradition, church and charitable institutions have been exempt from local property taxes and their income exempt from federal and state income taxes. In the 1970 case of Walz v. Tax Commission, the New York City Tax Commission’s grant of property tax exemptions to churches as allowed by state law was challenged by Walz on the theory that this required him to subsidize those churches indirectly. The Court upheld the law stressing its neutrality, viz:
It has not singled out one particular church or religious group or even churches as such; rather, it has granted exemptions to all houses of religious worship within a broad class of property owned by non-profit, quasi-public corporations . . . The State has an affirmative policy that considers these groups as beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life and finds this classification useful, desirable, and in the public interest.
The Court added that the exemption was not establishing religion but “sparing the exercise of religion from the burden of property taxation levied on private profit institutions” and preventing excessive entanglement between state and religion. At the same time, the Court acknowledged the long-standing practice of religious tax exemption and the Court’s traditional deference to legislative bodies with respect to the taxing power, viz:
(f)ew concepts are more deeply embedded in the fabric of our national life, beginning with pre-Revolutionary colonial times, than for the government to exercise . . . this kind of benevolent neutrality toward churches and religious exercise generally so long as none was favored over others and none suffered interference. (emphasis supplied)
C. Strict Neutrality v. Benevolent Neutrality
To be sure, the cases discussed above, while citing many landmark decisions in the religious clauses area, are but a small fraction of the hundreds of religion clauses cases that the U.S. Supreme Court has passed upon. Court rulings contrary to or making nuances of the above cases may be cited. Professor McConnell poignantly recognizes this, viz:
Thus, as of today, it is constitutional for a state to hire a Presbyterian minister to lead the legislature in daily prayers (Marsh v. Chambers, 463 US783, 792-93), but unconstitutional for a state to set aside a moment of silence in the schools for children to pray if they want to (Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 US 38, 56 ). It is unconstitutional for a state to require employers to accommodate their employees’ work schedules to their sabbath observances (Estate of Thornton v. Caldor, Inc., 472 US 703, 709-10 ) but constitutionally mandatory for a state to require employers to pay workers compensation when the resulting inconsistency between work and sabbath leads to discharge (. . .Sherbert v. Verner, 374 US 398, 403-4 ). It is constitutional for the government to give money to religiously-affiliated organizations to teach adolescents about proper sexual behavior (Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 US 589, 611 ), but not to teach them science or history (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 US 602, 618-619 ). It is constitutional for the government to provide religious school pupils with books (Board of Education v. Allen, 392 US 236, 238 ), but not with maps (Wolman v. Walter, 433 US 229, 249-51 ); with bus rides to religious schools (Everson v. Board of Education, 330 US 1, 17 ), but not from school to a museum on a field trip (Wolman v. Walter, 433 US 229, 252-55 ); with cash to pay for state-mandated standardized tests (Committee for Pub. Educ. and Religious Liberty v. Regan, 444 US 646, 653-54 ), but not to pay for safety-related maintenance (Committee for Pub. Educ v. Nyquist, 413 US 756, 774-80 ). It is a mess.
But the purpose of the overview is not to review the entirety of the U.S. religion clause jurisprudence nor to extract the prevailing case law regarding particular religious beliefs or conduct colliding with particular government regulations. Rather, the cases discussed above suffice to show that, as legal scholars observe, this area of jurisprudence has demonstrated two main standards used by the Court in deciding religion clause cases: separation (in the form of strict separation or the tamer version of strict neutrality or separation) and benevolent neutrality or accommodation. The weight of current authority, judicial and in terms of sheer volume, appears to lie with the separationists, strict or tame. But the accommodationists have also attracted a number of influential scholars and jurists. The two standards producing two streams of jurisprudence branch out respectively from the history of the First Amendment in England and the American colonies and climaxing in Virginia as narrated in this opinion and officially acknowledged by the Court in Everson, and from American societal life which reveres religion and practices age-old religious traditions. Stated otherwise, separation – strict or tame – protects the principle of church-state separation with a rigid reading of the principle while benevolent neutrality protects religious realities, tradition and established practice with a flexible reading of the principle. The latter also appeals to history in support of its position, viz:
The opposing school of thought argues that the First Congress intended to allow government support of religion, at least as long as that support did not discriminate in favor of one particular religion. . . the Supreme Court has overlooked many important pieces of history. Madison, for example, was on the congressional committee that appointed a chaplain, he declared several national days of prayer and fasting during his presidency, and he sponsored Jefferson’s bill for punishing Sabbath breakers; moreover, while president, Jefferson allowed federal support of religious missions to the Indians. . . And so, concludes one recent book, ‘there is no support in the Congressional records that either the First Congress, which framed the First Amendment, or its principal author and sponsor, James Madison, intended that Amendment to create a state of complete independence between religion and government. In fact, the evidence in the public documents goes the other way. (emphasis supplied)
To succinctly and poignantly illustrate the historical basis of benevolent neutrality that gives room for accommodation, less than twenty-four hours after Congress adopted the First Amendment’s prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion, Congress decided to express its thanks to God Almighty for the many blessings enjoyed by the nation with a resolution in favor of a presidential proclamation declaring a national day of Thanksgiving and Prayer. Only two members of Congress opposed the resolution, one on the ground that the move was a “mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings”, the other on establishment clause concerns. Nevertheless, the salutary effect of thanksgivings throughout Western history was acknowledged and the motion was passed without further recorded discussion. Thus, accommodationists also go back to the framers to ascertain the meaning of the First Amendment, but prefer to focus on acts rather than words. Contrary to the claim of separationists that rationalism pervaded America in the late 19th century and that America was less specifically Christian during those years than at any other time before or since, accommodationaists claim that American citizens at the time of the Constitution’s origins were a remarkably religious people in particularly Christian terms.
The two streams of jurisprudence – separationist or accommodationist – are anchored on a different reading of the “wall of separation.” The strict separtionist view holds that Jefferson meant the “wall of separation” to protect the state from the church. Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment Era of the eighteenth century, characterized by the rationalism and anticlericalism of that philosophic bent. He has often been regarded as espousing Deism or the rationalistic belief in a natural religion and natural law divorced from its medieval connection with divine law, and instead adhering to a secular belief in a universal harmony. Thus, according to this Jeffersonian view, the Establishment Clause being meant to protect the state from the church, the state’s hostility towards religion allows no interaction between the two. In fact, when Jefferson became President, he refused to proclaim fast or thanksgiving days on the ground that these are religious exercises and the Constitution prohibited the government from intermeddling with religion. This approach erects an absolute barrier to formal interdependence of religion and state. Religious institutions could not receive aid, whether direct or indirect, from the state. Nor could the state adjust its secular programs to alleviate burdens the programs placed on believers. Only the complete separation of religion from politics would eliminate the formal influence of religious institutions and provide for a free choice among political views thus a strict “wall of separation” is necessary. Strict separation faces difficulties, however, as it is deeply embedded in history and contemporary practice that enormous amounts of aid, both direct and indirect, flow to religion from government in return for huge amounts of mostly indirect aid from religion. Thus, strict separationists are caught in an awkward position of claiming a constitutional principle that has never existed and is never likely to.
A tamer version of the strict separationist view, the strict neutrality or separationist view is largely used by the Court, showing the Court’s tendency to press relentlessly towards a more secular society. It finds basis in the Everson case where the Court declared that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” encapsulated the meaning of the First Amendment but at the same time held that the First Amendment “requires the state to be neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.” (emphasis supplied) While the strict neutrality approach is not hostile to religion, it is strict in holding that religion may not be used as a basis for classification for purposes of governmental action, whether the action confers rights or privileges or imposes duties or obligations. Only secular criteria may be the basis of government action. It does not permit, much less require, accommodation of secular programs to religious belief. Professor Kurland wrote, viz:
The thesis proposed here as the proper construction of the religion clauses of the first amendment is that the freedom and separation clauses should be read as a single precept that government cannot utilize religion as a standard for action or inaction because these clauses prohibit classification in terms of religion either to confer a benefit or to impose a burden.
The Court has repeatedly declared that religious freedom means government neutrality in religious matters and the Court has also repeatedly interpreted this policy of neutrality to prohibit government from acting except for secular purposes and in ways that have primarily secular effects.
Prayer in public schools is an area where the Court has applied strict neutrality and refused to allow any form of prayer, spoken or silent, in the public schools as in Engel and Schempp.The McCollum case prohibiting optional religious instruction within public school premises during regular class hours also demonstrates strict neutrality. In these education cases, the Court refused to uphold the government action as they were based not on a secular but on a religious purpose. Strict neutrality was also used in Reynolds and Smith which both held that if government acts in pursuit of a generally applicable law with a secular purpose that merely incidentally burdens religious exercise, the First Amendment has not been offended. However, if the strict neutrality standard is applied in interpreting the Establishment Clause, it could de facto void religious expression in the Free Exercise Clause. As pointed out by Justice Goldberg in his concurring opinion in Schempp, strict neutrality could lead to “a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious” which is prohibited by the Constitution.Professor Laurence Tribe commented in his authoritative treatise, viz:
To most observers. . . strict neutrality has seemed incompatible with the very idea of a free exercise clause. The Framers, whatever specific applications they may have intended, clearly envisioned religion as something special; they enacted that vision into law by guaranteeing the free exercise of religion but not, say, of philosophy or science. The strict neutrality approach all but erases this distinction. Thus it is not surprising that the Supreme Court has rejected strict neutrality, permitting and sometimes mandating religious classifications.
The separationist approach, whether strict or tame, is caught in a dilemma because while the Jeffersonian wall of separation “captures the spirit of the American ideal of church-state separation”, in real life church and state are not and cannot be totally separate. This is all the more true in contemporary times when both the government and religion are growing and expanding their spheres of involvement and activity, resulting in the intersection of government and religion at many points.
Consequently, the Court has also decided cases employing benevolent neutrality. Benevolent neutrality which gives room for accommodation is buttressed by a different view of the “wall of separation” associated with Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony. In Mark DeWolfe Howe’s classic, The Garden and the Wilderness, he asserts that to the extent the Founders had a wall of separation in mind, it was unlike the Jeffersonian wall that is meant to protect the state from the church; instead, the wall is meant to protect the church from the state, i.e., the “garden” of the church must be walled in for its own protection from the “wilderness” of the world with its potential for corrupting those values so necessary to religious commitment. Howe called this the “theological” or “evangelical” rationale for church-state separation while the wall espoused by “enlightened” statesmen such as Jefferson and Madison, was a “political” rationale seeking to protect politics from intrusions by the church. But it has been asserted that this contrast between the Williams and Jeffersonian positions is more accurately described as a difference in kinds or styles of religious thinking, not as a conflict between “religious” and “secular (political)”; the religious style was biblical and evangelical in character while the secular style was grounded in natural religion, more generic and philosophical in its religious orientation.
The Williams wall is, however, breached for the church is in the state and so the remaining purpose of the wall is to safeguard religious liberty. Williams’ view would therefore allow for interaction between church and state, but is strict with regard to state action which would threaten the integrity of religious commitment. His conception of separation is not total such that it provides basis for certain interactions between church and state dictated by apparent necessity or practicality. This “theological” view of separation is found in Williams’ writings, viz:
. . . when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness, as this day. And that therefore if He will eer please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world. . .
Chief Justice Burger spoke of benevolent neutrality in Walz, viz:
The general principle deducible from the First Amendment and all that has been said by the Court is this: that we will not tolerate either governmentally established religion or governmental interference with religion. Short of those expressly proscribed governmental acts there is room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference. (emphasis supplied)
The Zorach case expressed the doctrine of accommodation, viz:
The First Amendment, however, does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State. Rather, it studiously defines the manner, the specific ways, in which there shall be no concert or union or dependency one or the other. That is the common sense of the matter. Otherwise, the state and religion would be aliens to each other – hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly. Churches could not be required to pay even property taxes. Municipalities would not be permitted to render police or fire protection to religious groups. Policemen who helped parishioners into their places of worship would violate the Constitution. Prayers in our legislative halls; the appeals to the Almighty in the messages of the Chief Executive; the proclamations making Thanksgiving Day a holiday; “so help me God” in our courtroom oaths- these and all other references to the Almighty that run through our laws, our public rituals, our ceremonies would be flouting the First Amendment. A fastidious atheist or agnostic could even object to the supplication with which the Court opens each session: ‘God save the United States and this Honorable Court.
xxx xxx xxx
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. . . When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. . . But we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen their effective scope of religious influence. (emphases supplied)
Benevolent neutrality is congruent with the sociological proposition that religion serves a function essential to the survival of society itself, thus there is no human society without one or more ways of performing the essential function of religion. Although for some individuals there may be no felt need for religion and thus it is optional or even dispensable, for society it is not, which is why there is no human society without one or more ways of performing the essential function of religion. Even in ostensibly atheistic societies, there are vigorous underground religion(s) and surrogate religion(s) in their ideology. As one sociologist wrote:
It is widely held by students of society that there are certain functional prerequisites without which society would not continue to exist. At first glance, this seems to be obvious – scarcely more than to say that an automobile could not exist, as a going system, without a carburetor. . . Most writers list religion among the functional prerequisites.
Another noted sociologist, Talcott Parsons, wrote: “There is no known human society without something which modern social scientists would classify as a religion…Religion is as much a human universal as language.”
Benevolent neutrality thus recognizes that religion plays an important role in the public life of the United States as shown by many traditional government practices which, to strict neutrality, pose Establishment Clause questions. Among these are the inscription of “In God We Trust” on American currency, the recognition of America as “one nation under God” in the official pledge of allegiance to the flag, the Supreme Court’s time-honored practice of opening oral argument with the invocation “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” and the practice of Congress and every state legislature of paying a chaplain, usually of a particular Protestant denomination to lead representatives in prayer. These practices clearly show the preference for one theological viewpoint -the existence of and potential for intervention by a god – over the contrary theological viewpoint of atheism. Church and government agencies also cooperate in the building of low-cost housing and in other forms of poor relief, in the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction, in foreign aid and other government activities with strong moral dimension. The persistence of these de facto establishments are in large part explained by the fact that throughout history, the evangelical theory of separation, i.e., Williams’ wall, has demanded respect for these de facto establishments. But the separationists have a different explanation. To characterize these as de jure establishments according to the principle of the Jeffersonian wall, the U.S. Supreme Court, the many dissenting and concurring opinions explain some of these practices as “‘de minimis’ instances of government endorsement or as historic governmental practices that have largely lost their religious significance or at least have proven not to lead the government into further involvement with religion.
With religion looked upon with benevolence and not hostility, benevolent neutrality allows accommodation of religion under certain circumstances. Accommodations are government policies that take religion specifically into account not to promote the government’s favored form of religion, but to allow individuals and groups to exercise their religion without hindrance. Their purpose or effect therefore is to remove a burden on, or facilitate the exercise of, a person’s or institution’s religion. As Justice Brennan explained, the “government [may] take religion into account…to exempt, when possible, from generally applicable governmental regulation individuals whose religious beliefs and practices would otherwise thereby be infringed, or to create without state involvement an atmosphere in which voluntary religious exercise may flourish.” (emphasis supplied) Accommodation is forbearance and not alliance. it does not reflectagreement with the minority, but respect for the conflict between the temporal and spiritual authority in which the minority finds itself.
Accommodation is distinguished from strict neutrality in that the latter holds that government should base public policy solely on secular considerations, without regard to the religious consequences of its actions. The debate between accommodation and strict neutrality is at base a question of means: “Is the freedom of religion best achieved when the government is conscious of the effects of its action on the various religious practices of its people, and seeks to minimize interferences with those practices? Or is it best advanced through a policy of ‘religious blindness’ – keeping government aloof from religious practices and issues?” An accommodationist holds that it is good public policy, and sometimes constitutionally required, for the state to make conscious and deliberate efforts to avoid interference with religious freedom. On the other hand, the strict neutrality adherent believes that it is good public policy, and also constitutionally required, for the government to avoid religion-specific policy even at the cost of inhibiting religious exercise.
There are strong and compelling reasons, however, to take the accommodationist position rather than the strict neutrality position. First, the accommodationist interpretation is most consistent with the language of the First Amendment. The religion clauses contain two parallel provisions, both specifically directed at “religion.” The government may not “establish” religion and neither may government “prohibit” it. Taken together, the religion clauses can be read most plausibly as warding off two equal and opposite threats to religious freedom – government action that promotes the (political) majority’s favored brand of religion and government action that impedes religious practices not favored by the majority. The substantive end in view is the preservation of the autonomy of religious life and not just the formal process value of ensuring that government does not act on the basis of religious bias. On the other hand, strict neutrality interprets the religion clauses as allowing government to do whatever it desires to or for religion, as long as it does the same to or for comparable secular entities. Thus, for example, if government prohibits all alcoholic consumption by minors, it can prohibit minors from taking part in communion. Paradoxically, this view would make the religion clauses violate the religion clauses, so to speak, since the religion clauses single out religion by name for special protection. Second, the accommodationist position best achieves the purposes of the First Amendment. The principle underlying the First Amendment is that freedom to carry out one’s duties to a Supreme Being is an inalienable right, not one dependent on the grace of legislature. Although inalienable, it is necessarily limited by the rights of others, including the public right of peace and good order. Nevertheless it is a substantive right and not merely a privilege against discriminatory legislation. The accomplishment of the purpose of the First Amendment requires more than the “religion blindness” of strict neutrality. With the pervasiveness of government regulation, conflicts with religious practices become frequent and intense. Laws that are suitable for secular entities are sometimes inappropriate for religious entities, thus the government must make special provisions to preserve a degree of independence for religious entities for them to carry out their religious missions according to their religious beliefs. Otherwise, religion will become just like other secular entities subject to pervasive regulation by majoritarian institutions. Third, the accommodationist interpretation is particularly necessary to protect adherents of minority religions from the inevitable effects of majoritarianism, which include ignorance and indifference and overt hostility to the minority. In a democratic republic, laws are inevitably based on the presuppositions of the majority, thus not infrequently, they come into conflict with the religious scruples of those holding different world views, even in the absence of a deliberate intent to interfere with religious practice. At times, this effect is unavoidable as a practical matter because some laws are so necessary to the common good that exceptions are intolerable. But in other instances, the injury to religious conscience is so great and the advancement of public purposes so small or incomparable that only indifference or hostility could explain a refusal to make exemptions. Because of plural traditions, legislators and executive officials are frequently willing to make such exemptions when the need is brought to their attention, but this may not always be the case when the religious practice is either unknown at the time of enactment or is for some reason unpopular. In these cases, a constitutional interpretation that allowsaccommodations prevents needless injury to the religious consciences of those who can have an influence in the legislature; while a constitutional interpretation that requiresaccommodations extends this treatment to religious faiths that are less able to protect themselves in the political arena. Fourth, the accommodationist position is practical as it is a commonsensical way to deal with the various needs and beliefs of different faiths in a pluralistic nation. Without accommodation, many otherwise beneficial laws would interfere severely with religious freedom. Aside from laws against serving alcoholic beverages to minors conflicting with celebration of communion, regulations requiring hard hats in construction areas can effectively exclude Amish and Sikhs from the workplace, or employment anti-discrimination laws can conflict with the Roman Catholic male priesthood, among others. Exemptions from such laws are easy to craft and administer and contribute much to promoting religious freedom at little cost to public policy. Without exemptions, legislature would be frequently forced to choose between violating religious conscience of a segment of the population or dispensing with legislation it considers beneficial to society as a whole. Exemption seems manifestly more reasonable than either of the alternative: no exemption or no law.
Benevolent neutrality gives room for different kinds of accommodation: those which are constitutionally compelled, i.e., required by the Free Exercise Clause; and those which are discretionary or legislative, i.e., and those not required by the Free Exercise Clause but nonetheless permitted by the Establishment Clause. Some Justices of the Supreme Court have also used the term accommodation to describe government actions that acknowledge or express prevailing religious sentiments of the community such as display of a religious symbol on public property or the delivery of a prayer at public ceremonial events. Stated otherwise, using benevolent neutrality as a standard could result to three situations of accommodation: those whereaccommodation is required, those where it is permissible, and those where it is prohibited. In the first situation, accommodation is required to preserve free exercise protections and not unconstitutionally infringe on religious liberty or create penalties for religious freedom. Contrary to the Smith declaration that free exercise exemptions are “intentional government advancement”, these exemptions merely relieve the prohibition on the free exercise thus allowing the burdened religious adherent to be left alone. The state must create exceptions to laws of general applicability when these laws threaten religious convictions or practices in the absence of a compelling state interest. By allowing such exemptions, the Free Exercise Clause does not give believers the right or privilege to choose for themselves to override socially-prescribed decision; it allows them to obey spiritual rather than temporal authority for those who seriously invoke the Free Exercise Clause claim to be fulfilling a solemn duty. Religious freedom is a matter less of rights than duties; more precisely, it is a matter of rights derived from duties. To deny a person or a community the right to act upon such a duty can be justified only by appeal to a yet more compelling duty. Of course, those denied will usually not find the reason for the denial compelling. “Because they may turn out to be right about the duty in question, and because, even if they are wrong, religion bears witness to that which transcends the political order, such denials should be rare and painfully reluctant.”
The Yoder case is an example where the Court held that the state must accommodate the religious beliefs of the Amish who objected to enrolling their children in high school as required by law. The Sherbert case is another example where the Court held that the state unemployment compensation plan must accommodate the religious convictions of Sherbert. In these cases of “burdensome effect”, the modern approach of the Court has been to apply strict scrutiny, i.e., to declare the burden as permissible, the Court requires the state to demonstrate that the regulation which burdens the religious exercise pursues a particularly important or compelling government goal through the least restrictive means. If the state’s objective could be served as well or almost as well by granting an exemption to those whose religious beliefs are burdened by the regulation, such an exemption must be given. This approach of the Court on “burdensome effect” was only applied since the 1960s. Prior to this time, the Court took the separationist view that as long as the state was acting in pursuit of non-religious ends and regulating conduct rather than pure religious beliefs, the Free Exercise Clause did not pose a hindrance such as in Reynolds. In the second situation where accommodation is permissible, the state may, but is not required to, accommodate religious interests. The Walz case illustrates this situation where the Court upheld the constitutionality of tax exemption given by New York to church properties, but did not rule that the state was required to provide tax exemptions. The Court declared that “(t)he limits of permissible state accommodation to religion are by no means co-extensive with the noninterference mandated by the Free Exercise Clause.” The Court held that New York could have an interest in encouraging religious values and avoiding threats to those values through the burden of property taxes. Other examples are the Zorach case allowing released time in public schools and Marsh allowing payment of legislative chaplains from public funds. Finally, in the situation where accommodation is prohibited, establishment concerns prevail over potential accommodation interests. To say that there are valid exemptions buttressed by the Free Exercise Clause does not mean that all claims for free exercise exemptions are valid. An example where accommodation was prohibited is McCollum where the Court ruled against optional religious instruction in the public school premises. In effect, the last situation would arrive at a strict neutrality conclusion.
In the first situation where accommodation is required, the approach follows this basic framework:
If the plaintiff can show that a law or government practice inhibits the free exercise of his religious beliefs, the burden shifts to the government to demonstrate that the law or practice is necessary to the accomplishment of some important (or ‘compelling’) secular objective and that it is the least restrictive means of achieving that objective. If the plaintiff meets this burden and the government does not, the plaintiff is entitled to exemption from the law or practice at issue. In order to be protected, the claimant’s beliefs must be ‘sincere’, but they need not necessarily be consistent, coherent, clearly articulated, or congruent with those of the claimant’s religious denomination. ‘Only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the Free Exercise Clause’; secular beliefs, however sincere and conscientious, do not suffice.
In other words, a three-step process (also referred to as the “two-step balancing process” supra when the second and third steps are combined) as in Sherbert is followed in weighing the state’s interest and religious freedom when these collide. Three questions are answered in this process. First, “(h)as the statute or government action created a burden on the free exercise of religion?” The courts often look into the sincerity of the religious belief, but without inquiring into the truth of the belief because the Free Exercise Clause prohibits inquiring about its truth as held in Ballard and Cantwell. The sincerity of the claimant’s belief is ascertained to avoid the mere claim of religious beliefs to escape a mandatory regulation. As evidence of sincerity, the U.S. Supreme Court has considered historical evidence as in Wisconsin where the Amish people had held a long-standing objection to enrolling their children in ninth and tenth grades in public high schools. In another case, Dobkin v. District of Columbia, the Court denied the claim of a party who refused to appear in court on Saturday alleging he was a Sabbatarian, but the Court noted that he regularly conducted business on Saturday. Although it is true that the Court might erroneously deny some claims because of a misjudgment of sincerity, this is not as argument to reject all claims by not allowing accommodation as a rule. There might be injury to the particular claimant or to his religious community, but for the most part, the injustice is done only in the particular case. Aside from the sincerity, the court may look into the centrality of those beliefs, assessing them not on an objective basis but in terms of the opinion and belief of the person seeking exemption. In Wisconsin, for example, the Court noted that the Amish people’s convictions against becoming involved in public high schools were central to their way of life and faith. Similarly, in Sherbert, the Court concluded that the prohibition against Saturday work was a “cardinal principle.” Professor Lupu puts to task the person claiming exemption, viz:
On the claimant’s side, the meaning and significance of the relevant religious practice must be demonstrated. Religious command should outweigh custom, individual conscience should count for more than personal convenience, and theological principle should be of greater significance than institutional ease. Sincerity matters, (footnote omitted) and longevity of practice – both by the individual and within the individual’s religious tradition – reinforces sincerity. Most importantly, the law of free exercise must be inclusive and expansive, recognizing non-Christian religions – eastern, Western, aboriginal and otherwise – as constitutionally equal to their Christian counterparts, and accepting of the intensity and scope of fundamentalist creed.
Second, the court asks: “(i)s there a sufficiently compelling state interest to justify this infringement of religious liberty?” In this step, the government has to establish that its purposes are legitimate for the state and that they are compelling. Government must do more than assert the objectives at risk if exemption is given; it must precisely show how and to what extent those objectives will be undermined if exemptions are granted. The person claiming religious freedom, on the other hand, will endeavor to show that the interest is not legitimate or that the purpose, although legitimate, is not compelling compared to infringement of religious liberty. This step involves balancing, i.e., weighing the interest of the state against religious liberty to determine which is more compelling under the particular set of facts. The greater the state’s interests, the more central the religious belief would have to be to overcome it. In assessing the state interest, the court will have to determine the importance of the secular interest and the extent to which that interest will be impaired by an exemption for the religious practice. Should the court find the interest truly compelling, there will be no requirement that the state diminish the effectiveness of its regulation by granting the exemption.
Third, the court asks: “(h)as the state in achieving its legitimate purposes used the least intrusive means possible so that the free exercise is not infringed any more than necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of the state?” The analysis requires the state to show that the means in which it is achieving its legitimate state objective is the least intrusive means, i.e., it has chosen a way to achieve its legitimate state end that imposes as little as possible on religious liberties. In Cantwell, for example, the Court invalidated the license requirement for the door-to-door solicitation as it was a forbidden burden on religious liberty, noting that less drastic means of insuring peace and tranquility existed. As a whole, in carrying out the compelling state interest test, the Court should give careful attention to context, both religious and regulatory, to achieve refined judgment.
In sum, as shown by U.S. jurisprudence on religion clause cases, the competing values of secular government and religious freedom create tensions that make constitutional law on the subject of religious liberty unsettled, mirroring the evolving views of a dynamic society.