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The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion

Michael W. McConnell
Harvard Law Review
Vol. 103, No. 7 (May, 1990), pp. 1409-1517
DOI: 10.2307/1341281
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1341281
Page Count: 109
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The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion
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Abstract

The question whether the free exercise clause requires the granting of religious exemptions from generally applicable laws with secular purposes has generated lively debate. Beyond a few narrow circumstances, the Supreme Court and legal commentators have rejected claims to free exercise exemptions. In this Article, Professor McConnell argues that this debate has largely proceeded in an ahistorical fashion and has ignored the unique American conception of religious freedom from which the free exercise clause emerged. Professor McConnell discusses the approaches to church-state relations in the American colonies and traces the development of free exercise provisions in both the colonies and the post-independence states. Contrary to modern perceptions, he argues, the impetus for free exercise provisions came from the evangelical religious movements of the period, movements that espoused the primacy of religious conscience over secular laws and that viewed the constitutional guarantee of free exercise as protecting the right actively to fulfill religious duties without state interference. He contends, moreover, that the framers adopted the terminology "free exercise of religion" in place of the alternative, "rights of conscience," to ensure protection for religiously motivated conduct and to make clear that protection would not extend to secular claims of conscience. After discussing early nineteenth-century judicial interpretations, Professor McConnell concludes that an interpretation of the free exercise clause that mandates religious exemptions was both within the contemplation of the framers and consonant with popular notions of religious liberty and limited government that existed at the time of the framing.

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