- Ed Whelan, Ethics & Public Policy Center
- Aaron Streett, Baker Botts
Familiar accounts of religious freedom in the United States often tell a story of visionary founders who broke from the centuries-old patterns of Christendom to establish a political arrangement committed to secular and religiously neutral government. These novel commitments were supposedly embodied in the religion clauses of the First Amendment. But this story is largely a fairytale, University of San Diego School of Law Prof. Steven D. Smith says in this incisive examination of a much-mythologized subject. He makes the case that the American achievement was not a rejection of Christian commitments but a retrieval of classic Christian ideals of freedom of the church and freedom of conscience.
In The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, Prof. Smith maintains that the distinctive American contribution to religious freedom was not in the First Amendment, which was intended merely to preserve the political status quo in matters of religion. What was important was the commitment to open contestation between secularist and providentialist understandings of the nation which evolved over the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, far from vindicating constitutional principles, as conventional wisdom suggests, the Supreme Court imposed secular neutrality, which effectively repudiated this commitment to open contestation. Rather than upholding what was distinctively American and constitutional, these decisions subverted it. The negative consequences are visible today in the incoherence of religion clause jurisprudence and the intense culture wars in American politics. Prof. Smith was joined by Prof. John Inazu of Washington University (Saint Louis) Law School to discuss the premises, analysis, and conclusions of Prof. Smith’s book.
On December 8, 2014, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in three cases challenging the HHS contraceptive mandate, including Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. The Little Sisters case has already been to the Supreme Court once when Justice Sotomayor gave the nuns an emergency injunction on December 31, 2013, and the full court gave them an injunction in January 2014. The Little Sisters returned to court on December 8 to challenge whether the government can force them to sign forms that would let the government and third parties use their plan to provide contraceptives.
Mark Rienzi is Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at the Catholic University of America. He argued on behalf of the Little Sisters and several other parties before the 10th Circuit, and he gave a report on the argument and the status of the challenges to the contraceptive mandate.