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