Under the Free Exercise Clause, every American is guaranteed the right to practice their religion. However, these religious practices can be limited by government interest. Importantly, this allows the government to protect the common good, allowing the regulation of particularly harmful religious practices. Problematically, the legal definition of this “compelling interest” has changed dramatically through time. 

Coming from a country (New Zealand) where a plurality of people do not adhere to a faith, America’s religiosity has always interested me. Since beginning my studies, I have become particularly interested in questions of religious freedom in America. As an outsider, the country seemed to exist with a weird tension. That being between the text of the Constitution, which guarantees free exercise for all, and the application of that constitution, which (at least to me) seemed to assume secularism was mainline Protestantism with Jesus removed. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1922, America appears as “a country with the soul of a church”.

In my research, I want to explore that tension. I want to understand how American law interprets the rights of minority faith groups, both in history and today. While a lot of ink has been spilled over the question of whether the Founders intended the country to be secular or Protestant, I am instead interested in whether it incidentally became one. Through understanding the ways that courts have regulated religious groups, through time, I want to understand the limits of religious liberty in this country. 

Beginning my research, I have been particularly interested in the ways the judiciary has interpreted the First Amendment as radically different through time. In particular, Justice Scalia’s ruling in Employment Division v. Smith in 1990 that there ought to be no religious exceptions to the law. In the last few weeks, studying how often “secular” law was often explicitly religiously inspired, it has been interesting to see how jurisprudence fails to recognize that the government’s “compelling interest” in regulating religious minorities is often derived from majority religion’s conceptions of morality.

Author: Millie Caughey