October 24, 2007

A Delicate Balance: The Free Exercise Clause and the Supreme Court

Looking Ahead

Ever since the Supreme Court first addressed a free exercise claim in the late 19th century, there has been no clear resolution to the question of how to interpret the Free Exercise Clause. The winding trail of decisions from Reynolds to Yoder to Smith to the legislative responses to Smith demonstrates that American courts and legislatures continue to struggle with the vexing question of whether and under what conditions religiously motivated actions should be exempt from generally applicable laws.

The persistence of such a question is inevitable in a religiously pluralistic society with a wide variety of religious practices. As religious pluralism in the U.S. increases, these questions are bound to occur with increasing frequency. The answers, however, may prove elusive, requiring the courts to continue to grapple with the precise meaning of the Free Exercise Clause.


This report was written by Ira C. Lupu, F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School; David Masci, Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; and Robert W. Tuttle, David R. and Sherry Kirschner Berz Research Professor of Law & Religion at George Washington University Law School.

Photo credit: Oswald Eckstein/Corbis