The Origins of Accommodation: Free Exercise, Disestablishment, and the Legend of Small Government

This Note brings novel historical evidence to bear on the question of whether religious exemptions from neutral, generally applicable laws are compelled by the First Amendment. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Smith (1990), a robust scholarship on relevant historical practice has emerged on both sides of the issue. Those in favor of religious exemptions argue that history supports their position because (1) the period after ratification was marked by extensive religious freedom and (2) the early United States was characterized by a limited government that stayed in its lane, out of the way of religion.

This Note shows how recently uncovered evidence about the disestablishment regulation of religious institutions, especially the proliferation of the corporate form, undermines both of these propositions. Religious freedom in the period after ratification was sought through government regulation, not through exemption, and early state governments were hardly limited in their invasions into church domain. An accurate history matters here. The Supreme Court’s recent return to history in its Establishment Clause jurisprudence and the addition of Justices committed to constitutional interpretation centered on historical meaning indicate that the history of free exercise during the Founding era may prove decisive the next time that the Court considers the issue of religious exemption.


In 1813, Father Anthony Kohlmann, rector of St. Peter’s Church in New York City, found himself between a rock and a hard place.1.See generally Walter J. Walsh, The First Free Exercise Case, 73 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 1 (2004) (recounting the history of Father Kohlmann’s case at length).Show More One of his parishioners, James Keating, had reported a theft of jewelry to the police.2.William Sampson, The Catholic Question in America 5 (N.Y., Edward Gillespy 1813).Show More Later, Keating withdrew his complaint after his property was returned.3.Id.Show More Keating, out of fear of being arrested, admitted that Father Kohlmann arranged the return of his stolen goods.4.Id.Show More Based on other evidence, two immigrants who were members of St. Peter’s were indicted as receivers of the stolen property, and Father Kohlmann was called as a witness to identify those whom he had convinced to return the stolen jewelry.5.Id. at 5–6.Show More The priest had a choice: refuse to testify and be jailed, or reveal the names of his penitent parishioners and, in his own words, “become a traitor to my church, to my sacred ministry and to my God.”6.Id. at 9; Walsh, supra note 1, at 21.Show More A lower state court found that the choice Father Kohlmann had been put to was untenable. It held that an exemption from the evidentiary requirements of the courtroom was mandated by the New York Constitution’s religious free exercise provision.7.SeeSampson, supra note 2, at 108–14.Show More

As the first state court decision to require an exemption on the basis of free exercise,8.See Walter J. Walsh, The Priest-Penitent Privilege: An Hibernocentric Essay in Postcolonial Jurisprudence, 80 Ind. L.J. 1037, 1038 n.4 (2005).Show More Father Kohlmann’s case—known as People v. Philips—has become a popular object of study.9.See Walsh, supra note 1; Michael W. McConnell, The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1409, 1410–12 (1990).Show More For those who believe that the Federal Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause requires similar exemptions, Father Kohlmann’s case is evidence that early state practices were consonant with a pro-exemption interpretation of the First Amendment.10 10.Walsh, supra note 1, at 2, 95; McConnell, supra note 9, at 1410–12.Show More Recent scholarship calls the case “the first constitutional victory for religious freedom,” and argues that this lower state court decision belongs “at the historical center of judicial and scholarly free exercise discourse.”11 11.Walsh, supra note 1, at 1–2.Show More That history, according to those in favor of exemptions, was characterized by an “Expansive Conception of Religious Freedom,” one that emerged in the context of a limited American government that stayed in its lane, out of the way of religion.12 12.McConnell, supra note 9, at 1436; see also infra Section II.A (summarizing the pro-exemption view of the historical record).Show More

But the story of Father Kohlmann’s Scylla and Charybdis, and of this rare13 13.McConnell notes that there was little litigation over early religion clauses in either the state or Federal Constitutions. See McConnell, supra note 9, at 1503.Show More early litigation, central to the historical case for free exercise exemptions, has been read in isolation. A fuller assessment of the nature of the religious freedom that New York recognized in 1813 requires considering not only Father Kohlmann’s exemption but also the laws that his church was subject to at the time: onerous and invasive state regulations from which no exemption was sought or given. In 1813, St. Peter’s Church, like others in New York, was governed by a board of trustees.14 14.SeeWalsh, supra note 1, at 21.Show More These lay members of the church were vested with power from the state and controlled church property and decision making.15 15.See Patrick J. Dignan, A History of the Legal Incorporation of Catholic Church Property in the United States, 1784–1932, at 53–54 (1933).Show More As the earliest Catholic Church in New York City, St. Peter’s had elected to incorporate under state law in 1785, just one year after the state extended the power to incorporate to Catholic churches.16 16.See id. at 54.Show More In 1813, the same year that Father Kohlmann won his exemption, the state updated its corporate law governing religious institutions and placed the control of church property, minister salaries, “rules and orders for managing the temporal affairs” of the church, and even the power to break ground in cemeteries firmly in the hands of the majority of lay trustees.17 17.See An Act to Provide for the Incorporation of Religious Societies, ch. 60, §§ 3–4, 8, 2 N.Y. Sess. Laws 212, 214–15, 217 (1813).Show More

In light of the requirements of New York’s corporate law, the Catholic Church which Father Kohlmann led was not only his to control. As Walsh points out, while the district attorney sought to drop the prosecution, it was the church’s lay trustees, not its priest, who insisted that the case be brought to trial, hoping to publicly secure the priest-penitent privilege in New York.18 18.SeeWalsh, supra note 1, at 21.Show More Contrary to Catholic ideology, then, St. Peter’s temporal property and direction were held by the church’s lay trustees, backed and governed by the state’s corporate laws.19 19.See Sarah Barringer Gordon, The First Disestablishment: Limits on Church Power and Property Before the Civil War, 162 U. Pa. L. Rev. 307, 347–50 (2014) (documenting the disruptive quality of disestablishment corporate law for Catholicism in America).Show More These legal mechanisms controlling religious institutions in New York were typical of regulations across the country, most of them passed during the era that Sarah Gordon calls the “First Disestablishment.”20 20.Id. at 307, 311–12. Gordon dates the First Disestablishment as occurring between 1786 and 1833. Id. at 310.Show More Sounding in corporate law, these regulations restricted church property, interfered with internal church governance, and shaped what “religious freedom” meant in New York and in the early United States.21 21.Id. at 321–24.Show More Yet this history has thus far been largely ignored, both by those championing People v. Philips as a high watermark of religious freedom and, more generally, in the fierce debate over the history of the Free Exercise Clause.22 22.See infra Section II.D.Show More This Note refracts that debate through the lens of disestablishment regulation of religious institutions. In doing so, it posits that state interventions into religion during the First Disestablishment undermine the historical case for religious exemptions.

It is important to precisely identify the constitutional issue at play, one that remains hotly contested some 200 years after Father Kohlmann took confession. The question is this: Where a neutral, generally applicable law imposes an incidental burden on an individual’s free exercise of religion, does the Constitution mandate an exemption?23 23.This framing of the issue reflects the Supreme Court’s most recent significant re-appraisal. See Emp. Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 883–89 (1990).Show More The center of the exemptions debate thus turns on the standard of judicial review applicable to incidental burdens on religion.24 24.See Douglas Laycock, The Religious Exemption Debate, 11 Rutgers J.L. & Religion 139, 141–42 (2009).Show More Must the government offer merely some form of rational basis to defend a generally applicable law against a claim of exemption, or does the government need to demonstrate that it has a compelling interest and has narrowly tailored the statute at issue?25 25.Compare Smith, 494 U.S. at 879 (asserting that the right to free exercise does not reach a “valid and neutral law of general applicability”), with 894–95 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (citing precedent that requires the government to justify a substantial burden on free exercise with a “compelling state interest and by means narrowly tailored to achieve that interest”).Show More Those in favor of exemptions argue that the government must do the latter in order to impose incidental burdens on religious free exercise.26 26.See, e.g., Laycock, supra note 24, at 151.Show More Those opposed to exemptions contend that no such showing is required and that neutral and generally applicable laws do not trigger heightened review under the Free Exercise Clause.27 27.See, e.g., Smith, 494 U.S. at 879 (holding that heightened review was not required for a neutral, generally applicable law that imposed an incidental burden on the free exercise of religion); Philip A. Hamburger, A Constitutional Right of Religious Exemption: An Historical Perspective, 60 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 915, 936–40 (1992) (arguing that the original understanding and practice under the Free Exercise Clause provides no support for a right to regulatory exemptions).Show More

Since the Supreme Court first encountered the issue of religious exemptions in 1878,28 28.SeeReynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 166 (1878).Show More the doctrine has evolved between these positions. In contrast to the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence,29 29.Recent Establishment Clause jurisprudence has featured various forms of historical analysis as part of the Court’s decision making. See, e.g., Am. Legion v. Am. Humanist Ass’n, 139 S. Ct. 2067, 2089 (2019) (“The practice begun by the First Congress stands out as an example of respect and tolerance for differing views, an honest endeavor to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and a recognition of the important role that religion plays in the lives of many Americans. Where categories of monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstanding history follow in that tradition, they are likewise constitutional.”); Everson v. Bd. of Educ. of Ewing Twp., 330 U.S. 1, 8–14 (1947) (tracing disestablishment history beginning with immigration from Europe); Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 852–62 (1995) (Thomas, J., concurring) (contextualizing Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments to argue that the Establishment Clause does not require the government to exclude religious adherents from generally available government subsidies); id. at 868–72 (Souter, J., dissenting) (denying Justice Thomas’ characterization of Madison’s letter).Show More the Court has often ruled on free exercise exemption claims without reference to the history of the First Amendment.30 30.See Douglas Laycock, Regulatory Exemptions of Religious Behavior and the Original Understanding of the Establishment Clause, 81 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1793, 1794–95 (2006).Show More However, in the aftermath of Employment Division v. Smith—one of the Court’s most significant and least historically inflected decisions on the issue—a vibrant scholarly debate developed around the history of the Free Exercise Clause, with academics interpreting Founding-era historical sources in order to support their preferred interpretation of the First Amendment.31 31.See infra Part II.Show More Faced with an ambiguous constitutional provision and little legislative history, scholars and Supreme Court Justices have turned to persuasive authority in an attempt to determine whether the Free Exercise Clause at the time of the Founding accorded with, required, or ran against, constitutionally compelled exemptions for religion.

The sources of historical authority relied on in the exemptions debate are numerous, yet recent research on disestablishment regulation of religious institutions has hitherto been ignored. Gordon’s intervention—analyzing state regulation of religious institutions as states removed government support for the church following ratification—casts doubt on two of the premises undergirding the historical case for religious exemptions. Those in favor of constitutionally compelled religious exemptions argue that (1) the period after ratification was marked by an “expansive conception of religious freedom” consonant with constitutionally required exemptions for religious free exercise and (2) the early United States was characterized by a limited government that stayed in its lane, out of the way of religion.32 32.See, e.g., McConnell, supra note 9, at 1415, 1436–49 (advancing both of these positions).Show More The history of disestablishment regulations complicates the first of these arguments because, as Gordon argues, religious freedom during disestablishment was sought through government regulation of the church, not through the exemption of religious institutions from the law.33 33.See infra Part III.Show More The proposition that early American government was “limited” is even more seriously undermined by the history of disestablishment, which demonstrates that early state government relations with the church were characterized by invasive state oversight, especially through corporate laws regulating private property and lay governance.34 34.Id.Show More

This limited intervention does not add to Gordon’s impressive recent work on disestablishment history. Instead, this Note draws out the full significance of that history, by showing how disestablishment regulation unsettles the free exercise exemption debate. Gordon framed her intervention in terms of the relationship between religious institutions and individual conscience.35 35.See Gordon, supra note 19, at 311 (“This first system of disestablishment imposed discipline on religious institutions . . . based on concerns for individual conscience and lay control.”).Show More Yet the story that she uncovered—of religious liberty sought in and through state regulation—is also powerful evidence of the nature of the Free Exercise Clause after ratification. A full account of the history matters for two reasons. On the one hand, disestablishment regulations of religious institutions bear on how we think about the rights of religious individuals and institutions.36 36.See, e.g., Michael W. McConnell, John H. Garvey & Thomas C. Berg, Religion and the Constitution 64 (4th ed. 2016) (a leading textbook on the subject).Show More On the other, this history may well shape the Supreme Court’s future free exercise jurisprudence. The Supreme Court’s recent return to history in its Establishment Clause jurisprudence,37 37.See supra note 29 and accompanying text.Show More and the addition of Justices committed to constitutional interpretation centered on historical meaning,38 38.There is good reason to believe that Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett are open to, if not outright supporters of, historical analysis as a supplement to constitutional interpretation. SeeNeil M. Gorsuch, Of Lions and Bears, Judges and Legislators, and the Legacy of Justice Scalia, 66 Case W. L. Rev. 905, 906 (2016) (arguing that judges should seek to apply the law by looking to “text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be”); Tucker Higgins, Read Brett Kavanaugh’s Full Opening Remarks in his Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing, CNBC (Sept. 4, 2018),­arks-to-the-senate-judiciary-committee.html [] (“A judge must interpret statutes as written. A judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent.”); Kanter v. Barr, 919 F.3d 437, 453–65 (7th Cir. 2019) (Barrett, J., dissenting) (performing an in-depth historical analysis to conclude that “[h]istory does not support the proposition that felons lose their Second Amendment rights solely because of their status as felons,” but “it does support the proposition that the state can take the right to bear arms away from a category of people that it deems dangerous”).Show More indicate that the history of free exercise during the Founding era may well prove decisive the next time that the Court considers the issue of religious exemptions.39 39.The Supreme Court has granted certiorari and received merits briefs on the question of whether to overrule Smith. As of this Note’s writing, the Court’s opinion has not been released. Petition for Writ of Certiorari at i, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 140 S. Ct. 1104 (2020) (No. 19-123); Brief for Petitioners at 37, Fulton, 140 S. Ct. 1104 (No. 19-123); Brief for City Respondents at 47, Fulton, 140 S. Ct. 1104 (No. 19-123); see also Micah Schwartzman, Richard Schragger, & Nelson Tebbe, Symposium: Religious Privilege in Fulton and Beyond, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 2, 2020, 9:29 AM),­2020/11/symposium-religious-privilege-in-fulton-and-beyond/ [­NT] (discussing the new conservative majority’s likely path in expanding free exercise rights). And four of the Court’s conservative Justices have signaled an intent to reverse Smith. Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist., 139 S. Ct. 634, 637 (2019) (Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, JJ., concurring in denial of certiorari) (signaling an intent to “revisit” Smith); Howard Gillman & Erwin Chermerinsky, The Weaponization of the Free Exercise Clause, Atlantic, (Sept. 18, 2020), [] (arguing that “the conservative justices on the current Court reject Scalia’s reasoning and may be about to overrule Employment Division v. Smith”); Eugene Volokh, Will the Court Read the Free Exercise Clause as Often Mandating Religious Exemptions from Generally Applicable Laws?, Volokh Conspiracy (Jan. 1, 2019), [] (observing that the statement denying certiorari in Bremerton suggested the four Justices’ willingness to overrule Smith and that Justice Breyer had echoed this sentiment in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997)).Show More

The first Part of this Note summarizes the three major phases of free exercise doctrine in the Supreme Court, with particular attention to the Court’s irregular engagement with historical evidence. Second, the extant scholarship on the history of free exercise is summarized, along with its influence in the Supreme Court. The Note’s third Part considers recent research on early state regulations applicable to religious institutions during the First Disestablishment. This Part shows how disestablishment history qualifies claims about expansive religious freedom and “limited” government during the Founding era. This Part also considers three objections to the use of disestablishment history to interpret the meaning of the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. The Note concludes by reflecting on the importance of the exemptions issue during the Founding era and today, the stakes of historical analysis for the Supreme Court’s Religion Clauses jurisprudence, and the potential for a historically inflected reappraisal of Free Exercise Clause doctrine.