By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
“Smith relegated our national commitment to the free exercise of religion to the sub-basement of constitutional values.”
-Michael P. Farris and Jordan W. Lorence, “Employment Division v. Smith and the Need for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” 6 Regent U.L.Rev. 65, 66 (1995)
Several years following the ratification of the Constitution, a man named Jonas Phillips was subpoenaed to testify on behalf of a defendant in a criminal case in Pennsylvania. The problem was that the trial was scheduled for a Saturday and Mr. Phillips was a devout Jew. He refused to be sworn on the Jewish Sabbath and was subsequently held in contempt and fined ten pounds, despite invoking the protection of the Pennsylvania constitution, which provided that “no human authority can in any case whatsoever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience. . . .” Stansbury v. Marks, 2 Dall. 213 (Pa. 1793). Fortunately, the defendant waived Mr. Phillips’ appearance and the fine was discharged.
Jonas Phillips’ “rights of conscience” were deemed subordinate to the orderly administration of the judicial system in a state which boasted one of the most religiously tolerant constitutions in the young nation. Therefore, when the Supreme Court held in 1878 that rights of conscience likewise could not be raised as a defense to a charge of bigamy, the ruling was hardly earthshattering. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878). And the decision over one hundred years later in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), appeared to confirm a principle that had largely guided free exercise jurisprudence since the nation’s founding: the Religion Clauses do not mandate religious exemptions from valid laws intended to be binding upon all of us. Yet the Smith decision produced a harsh political and academic reaction, resulting in legislation that has radically altered the free exercise landscape. How did that happen?