The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, often referred to as the peyote case, marked a turning point in interpretation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws abridging the free exercise of religion. In that case, the Court held that religion-neutral laws enacted or implemented without discriminatory intent do not violate the Free Exercise Clause regardless of their impact on religious practices. The predictable result – free exercise claims have been largely unsuccessful, absent a clear showing of anti-religious bias.
Following the Smith decision, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which subjects federal action affecting religious practice to more or less the strict scrutiny test that had been applied prior to Smith, and a number of states passed their own RFRA bills. The Supreme Court is slated to consider whether to return to the earlier free-exercise standard, thereby expanding constitutional rights to religious exemptions from antidiscrimination and other laws, when it hears argument on November 4th in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In the meanwhile, federal courts are facing free-exercise challenges to COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings, in which houses of worship seek exemptions for in-person religious services.
The panel addresses whether and how the Supreme Court may move to an earlier vision of the Free Exercise Clause jurisprudence, and the implications of such a change in the law for religious freedom and for other state interests, including the civil rights of LGBTQ people.