Constitutional Language and Judicial Interpretations of the Free Exercise Clause

Bette Novit Evans

in The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States

Published in print November 2010 | ISBN: 9780195326246
Published online January 2011 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

 Constitutional Language and Judicial Interpretations of the Free Exercise Clause

More Like This

Show all results sharing these subjects:

  • Politics
  • US Politics
  • Politics and Law


Show Summary Details


While the opening words of the U.S. Bill of Rights symbolize national commitment to religious liberty by stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” its parameters and interpretations remain a much-heated debate to many constitutional litigants, scholars, historians, groups, and individuals. Traditionally, the U.S. Bill of Rights was understood to encompass two separate guarantees. The Establishment Clause protects the citizens from state-sponsored or imposed religious obligations, while the Free Exercise Clause protects religious expression from state penalties. Regardless of the guarantees afforded by the constitution, countless debates on the meaning of religious establishment and the meaning of free exercise still surround the Bill. This article analyzes the contemporary free exercise jurisprudence by linking each major issue to the ambiguity of the constitutional language. For instance, the current debate on the status of neutral laws that incidentally burden religion is rooted in the interpretations of “prohibiting” a religious exercise, and the debate on the exemptions from such laws are rooted in the differing interpretations of the words “no law.” The analysis of the issues herein do not adhere to the order of the appearance of the words in the free exercise clause; rather, it follows an order that highlights the logic of constitutional arguments.

Keywords: Bill of Rights; religious liberty; free exercise; Establishment Clause; Free Exercise Clause; free exercise jurisprudence; religious exercise; constitutional language; Congress; laws

Article.  20290 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; US Politics ; Politics and Law

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.