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The Debate About the Original Meaning of the Free Exercise Clause


My amicus brief in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which argues that the Court was right in Employment Division v. Smith when it said the Free Exercise Clause is a nondiscrimination provision, deliberately doesn't discuss the original meaning arguments: I have 8000 words for my brief, and I don't want to use them to duplicate arguments that will doubtless arise in other amicus briefs. But I know our readers are interested in this question, so I thought I'd pass along the Justices' most detailed discussion of the issue, from City of Boerne v. Flores (1997). What follows is an excerpt, which omits many of the specific details; you can see those details in the full decision (focus on Justice Scalia's concurrence and Part II of Justice O'Connor's dissent).

Here is Justice Scalia's argument (which I generally think is right) for why the Free Exercise Clause was originally understood as only preventing discriminatory persecution of religious people and practices because of their religiosity:

[A.] {[T]he protections afforded by} various statutory and constitutional protections of religion enacted by Colonies, States, and Territories in the period leading up to the ratification of the Bill of Rights … are in fact more consistent with Employment Div. v. Smith's interpretation of free exercise than with the dissent's understanding of it….

[T]he early "free exercise" enactments cited by the dissent protect only against action that is taken "for" or "in respect of" religion (Maryland Act Concerning Religion of 1649, Rhode Island Charter of 1663, and New Hampshire Constitution); or action taken "on account of" religion (Maryland Declaration of Rights of 1776 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787); or "discriminat[ory]" action (New York Constitution); or, finally (and unhelpfully for purposes of interpreting "free exercise" in the Federal Constitution), action that interferes with the "free exercise" of religion (Maryland Act Concerning Religion of 1649 and Georgia Constitution). It is eminently arguable that application of neutral, generally applicable laws of the sort the dissent refers to … would not constitute action taken "for," "in respect of," or "on account of" one's religion, or "discriminatory" action.

Assuming, however, that the affirmative protection of religion accorded by the early "free exercise" enactments sweeps as broadly as the dissent's theory would require, those enactments do not support the dissent's view, since they contain "provisos" that significantly qualify the affirmative protection they grant…. In fact, the most plausible reading of the "free exercise" enactments (if their affirmative provisions are read broadly, as the dissent's view requires) is a virtual restatement of Smith: Religious exercise shall be permitted so long as it does not violate general laws governing conduct.

The "provisos" in the enactments negate a license to act in a manner "unfaithfull to the Lord Proprietary" (Maryland Act Concerning Religion of 1649), or "behav[e]" in other than a "peaceabl[e] and quie[t]" manner (Rhode Island Charter of 1663), or "disturb the public peace" (New Hampshire Constitution), or interfere with the "peace [and] safety of th[e] State" (New York, Maryland, and Georgia Constitutions), or "demea[n]" oneself in other than a "peaceable and orderly manner" (Northwest Ordinance of 1787). At the time these provisos were enacted, keeping "peace" and "order" seems to have meant, precisely, obeying the laws. "[E]very breach of a law is against the peace." Queen v. Lane, 87 Eng. Rep. 884 (Q.B. 1704).

Even as late as 1828, when Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language, he gave as one of the meanings of "peace": "8. Public tranquility; that quiet, order and security which is guaranteed by the laws; as, to keep the peace; to break the peace." {The word "licentious," used in several of the early enactments, likewise meant "[e]xceeding the limits of law."} This limitation upon the scope of religious exercise would have been in accord with the background political philosophy of the age (associated most prominently with John Locke), which regarded freedom as the right "to do only what was not lawfully prohibited." "Thus, the disturb-the-peace caveats apparently permitted government to deny religious freedom, not merely in the event of violence or force, but, more generally, upon the occurrence of illegal actions." Hamburger, A Constitutional Right of Religious Exemption: An Historical Perspective, 60 Geo. Wash. Law Rev. 915 (1992).

{The same explanation applies, of course, to George Mason's initial draft of Virginia's religious liberty clause. When it said "unless, under colour of religion, any man disturb the peace … of society," it probably meant "unless under color of religion any man break the law." Thus, it is not the case that "both Mason's and [James] Madison's formulations envisioned that, when there was a conflict [between religious exercise and generally applicable laws], a person's interest in freely practicing his religion was to be balanced against state interests," at least insofar as regulation of conduct was concerned.}

And while, under this interpretation, these early "free exercise" enactments support the Court's judgment in Smith, I see no sensible interpretation that could cause them to support what I understand to be the position of Justice O'Connor, or any of Smith's other critics. No one in that camp, to my knowledge, contends that their favored "compelling state interest" test conforms to any possible interpretation of "breach of peace and order"—i.e., that only violence or force, or any other category of action (more limited than "violation of law") which can possibly be conveyed by the phrase "peace and order," justifies state prohibition of religiously motivated conduct.

[B.] [T]hat legislatures sometimes (though not always) found it "appropriate" to accommodate religious practices does not establish that accommodation was understood to be constitutionally mandated by the Free Exercise Clause…. [Likewise, t]here is no reason to think [that Framers' statements about proposed legislative enactments] were meant to describe what was constitutionally required (and judicially enforceable), as opposed to what was thought to be legislatively or even morally desirable.

Thus, for example, the pamphlet written by James Madison opposing Virginia's proposed general assessment for support of religion does not argue that the assessment would violate the "free exercise" provision in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, although that provision had been enacted into law only eight years earlier; rather the pamphlet argues that the assessment wrongly placed civil society ahead of personal religious belief and, thus, should not be approved by the legislators. Likewise, the letter from George Washington to the Quakers by its own terms refers to Washington's "wish and desire" that religion be accommodated, not his belief that existing constitutional provisions required accommodation….

The one exception is the statement by Thomas Jefferson that he considered "the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises"; but it is quite clear that Jefferson did not in fact espouse the broad principle of affirmative accommodation advocated by the dissent, see McConnell, The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1409, 1415 (1990) [("Jefferson's understanding of the scope and rationale of free exercise rights, however, was more limited even than Locke's. Like Locke, he based his advocacy of freedom of religion on the judgment that religion, properly confined, can do no harm: 'The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.'")]….

[C.] Had the understanding in the period surrounding the ratification of the Bill of Rights been that the various forms of accommodation discussed by the dissent were constitutionally required (either by State Constitutions or by the Federal Constitution), it would be surprising not to find a single state or federal case refusing to enforce a generally applicable statute because of its failure to make accommodation. Yet the dissent cites none—and to my knowledge, and to the know­ledge of the academic defenders of the dissent's position, none exists.

The closest one can come in the period prior to 1850 is the decision of a New York City municipal court in 1813, holding that the New York Constitution of 1777 required acknowledgment of a priest-penitent privilege, to protect a Catholic priest from being compelled to testify as to the contents of a confession. People v. Phillips (N.Y. Ct. Gen. Sess. 1813). Even this lone case is weak authority, not only because it comes from a minor court [conducted by the Mayor, who had never been a jurist], but also because it did not involve a statute, and the same result might possibly have been achieved (without invoking constitutional entitlement) by the court's simply modifying the common-law rules of evidence to recognize such a privilege.

On the other side of the ledger, moreover, there are two cases, from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, flatly rejecting the dissent's view. In Philips v. Gratz, 2 Pen. & W. 412 (Pa. 1831), the court held that a litigant was not entitled to a continuance of trial on the ground that appearing on his Sabbath would violate his religious principles. And in Stansbury v. Marks, 2 Dall. 213 (Pa. 1793), decided just two years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the court imposed a fine on a witness who "refused to be sworn, because it was his Sabbath." {Indeed, the author of Philips could well have written Smith: "[C]onsiderations of policy address themselves with propriety to the legislature, and not to a magistrate whose course is prescribed not by discretion, but rules already established."} …

[D.] The historical evidence marshalled by the dissent … is more supportive of [Smith] than destructive of it. And … that evidence is not compatible with any theory I am familiar with that has been proposed as an alternative to Smith….

And here is Justice O'Connor's argument that the Free Exercise Clause did require religious exemptions even from religion-neutral, generally applicable laws:

[A.] Although the Framers may not have asked precisely the questions about religious liberty that we do today, the historical record indicates that they believed that the Constitution affirmatively protects religious free exercise and that it limits the government's ability to intrude on religious practice….

[I]n 1649, the Maryland Assembly enacted the first free exercise clause by passing the Act Concerning Religion: "[N]o person … professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any ways troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof … nor any way [be] compelled to the belief or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent, so as they be not unfaithful to the Lord Proprietary, or molest or conspire against the civil Government." [Archaic spelling updated here and in the next paragraph.—ed.]

Rhode Island's Charter of 1663 used the analogous term "liberty of conscience." It protected residents from being in any ways "molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony." The Charter further provided that residents may "freely, and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments, and conscience in matters of religious concernments …; they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness; nor to the civil injury, or outward disturbance of others." Various agreements between prospective settlers and the proprietors of Carolina, New York, and New Jersey similarly guaranteed religious freedom, using language that paralleled that of the Rhode Island Charter of 1663.

These documents suggest that, early in our country's history, several Colonies acknowledged that freedom to pursue one's chosen religious beliefs was an essential liberty. Moreover, these Colonies appeared to recognize that government should interfere in religious matters only when necessary to protect the civil peace or to prevent "licentiousness."

In other words, when religious beliefs conflicted with civil law, religion prevailed unless important state interests militated otherwise….

[B.] The principles expounded in these early charters re-emerged over a century later in state constitutions that were adopted in the flurry of constitution drafting that followed the American Revolution. By 1789, every State but Connecticut had incorporated some version of a free exercise clause into its constitution.

These state provisions, which were typically longer and more detailed than the Federal Free Exercise Clause, are perhaps the best evidence of the original understanding of the Constitution's protection of religious liberty. After all, it is reasonable to think that the States that ratified the First Amendment assumed that the meaning of the federal free exercise provision corresponded to that of their existing state clauses.

The precise language of these state precursors to the Free Exercise Clause varied, but most guaranteed free exercise of religion or liberty of conscience, limited by particular, defined state interests. For example, the New York Constitution of 1777 provided: "[T]he free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed, within this State, to all mankind: Provided, That the liberty of conscience, hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State."

Similarly, the New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 declared: "Every individual has a natural and unalienable right to worship GOD according to the dictates of his own conscience, and reason; and no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained in his person, liberty or estate for worshipping GOD, in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, … provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or disturb others, in their religious worship."

The Maryland Declaration of Rights of 1776 read: "[N]o person ought by any law to be molested in his person or estate on account of his religious persuasion or profession, or for his religious practice; unless, under colour of religion, any man shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality, or injure others, in their natural, civil, or religious rights."

The religious liberty clause of the Georgia Constitution of 1777 stated: "All persons whatever shall have the free exercise of their religion; provided it be not repugnant to the peace and safety of the State."

In addition to these state provisions, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—which was enacted contemporaneously with the drafting of the Constitution and reenacted by the First Congress—established a bill of rights for a territory that included what is now Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. Article I of the Ordinance declared: "No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory."

[This language] strongly suggests that, around the time of the drafting of the Bill of Rights, it was generally accepted that the right to "free exercise" required, where possible, accommodation of religious practice. If not—and if the Court was correct in Smith that generally applicable laws are enforceable regardless of religious conscience—there would have been no need for these documents to specify, as the New York Constitution did, that rights of conscience should not be "construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of [the] State." Such a proviso would have been superfluous. Instead, these documents make sense only if the right to free exercise was viewed as generally superior to ordinary legislation, to be overridden only when necessary to secure important government purposes.

The Virginia Legislature may have debated the issue most fully. In May 1776, the Virginia Constitutional Convention wrote a constitution containing a Declaration of Rights with a clause on religious liberty. The initial drafter of the clause, George Mason, proposed the following: "That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be (directed) only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless, under colour of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of society. And that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other."

Mason's proposal did not go far enough for a 26-year-old James Madison, who had recently completed his studies at the Presbyterian College of Princeton. He objected first to Mason's use of the term "toleration," contending that the word implied that the right to practice one's religion was a governmental favor, rather than an inalienable liberty.

Second, Madison thought Mason's proposal countenanced too much state interference in religious matters, since the "exercise of religion" would have yielded whenever it was deemed inimical to "the peace, happiness, or safety of society." Madison suggested the provision read instead: "That religion, or the duty we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence or compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it, according to the dictates of conscience; and therefore that no man or class of men ought on account of religion to be invested with peculiar emoluments or privileges, nor subjected to any penalties or disabilities, unless under color of religion the preservation of equal liberty, and the existence of the State be manifestly endangered."

Thus, Madison wished to shift Mason's language of "toleration" to the language of rights. Additionally, under Madison's proposal, the State could interfere in a believer's religious exercise only if the State would otherwise "be manifestly endangered." In the end, neither Mason's nor Madison's language regarding the extent to which state interests could limit religious exercise made it into the Virginia Constitution's religious liberty clause. Like the Federal Free Exercise Clause, the Virginia religious liberty clause was simply silent on the subject, providing only that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience."

For our purposes, however, it is telling that both Mason's and Madison's formulations envisioned that, when there was a conflict, a person's interest in freely practicing his religion was to be balanced against state interests. Although Madison endorsed a more limited state interest exception than did Mason, the debate would have been irrelevant if either had thought the right to free exercise did not include a right to be exempt from certain generally applicable laws. Presumably, the Virginia Legislature intended the scope of its free exercise provision to strike some middle ground between Mason's narrower and Madison's broader notions of the right to religious freedom.

[C.] The practice of the Colonies and early States bears out the conclusion that, at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified, it was accepted that government should, when possible, accommodate religious practice….

For example, Quakers and certain other Protestant sects refused on Biblical grounds to subscribe to oaths or "swear" allegiance to civil authority…. [Many colonies] exempted Quakers from military service [as did the Continental Congress]….

States and Colonies with established churches … required citizens to pay tithes to support either the government-established church or the church to which the tithepayer belonged. But Baptists and Quakers, as well as others, opposed all government-compelled tithes on religious grounds. Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Virginia responded by exempting such objectors from religious assessments….

[Likewise, b]oth North Carolina and Maryland excused Quakers from the requirement of removing their hats in court; Rhode Island exempted Jews from the requirements of the state marriage laws [that barred uncle-niece marriages, which Jewish law accepted—ed.]; and Georgia allowed groups of European immigrants to organize whole towns according to their own faith.

To be sure, legislatures, not courts, granted these early accommodations. But these were the days before there was a Constitution to protect civil liberties—judicial review did not yet exist. These legislatures apparently believed that the appropriate response to conflicts between civil law and religious scruples was, where possible, accommodation of religious conduct. It is reasonable to presume that the drafters and ratifiers of the First Amendment—many of whom served in state legislatures—assumed courts would apply the Free Exercise Clause similarly, so that religious liberty was safeguarded….