Justin W. Aimonetti & M. Christian Talley



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In its 1963 decision Sherbert v. Verner, the Supreme Court interpreted the Free Exercise Clause to permit religious exemptions from general laws that incidentally burdened religious practice. Sherbert, in theory, provided stringent protections for religious freedom. But those protections came at a price. Religious adherents could secure exemptions even if they had no evidence the laws they challenged unfairly targeted their religious conduct. And they could thereby undermine the policy objectives those laws sought to achieve. Because of such policy concerns, the Court progressively restricted the availability of religious exemptions. In its 1990 decision Employment Division v. Smith, the Court then abandoned the Sherbert regime altogether. Incidental burdens would no longer suffice for Free Exercise exemptions. Instead, Smith predicated future exemptions on litigants’ showing that laws unfairly targeted religious practice or granted exemptions to secular entities that were arbitrarily withheld from religious comparators. Smith’s revision, this Article contends, subtly but profoundly changed how public policy interacts with the Free Exercise Clause. Smith created a world in which religious exemptions often promote, rather than impede, rational policy. Smith’s framework helps detect laws that are rooted in animus, rather than reason, or that impede their own efficacy with gratuitous secular exemptions. Applying that insight to recent religious liberty litigation contesting coronavirus lockdowns, this Article contends that many of those suits made state responses to COVID-19 more rational. Despite the scholarly criticism religious litigants endured, their suits exposed both irrational over-enforcement of lockdown measures against religious entities and irrational under-enforcement of those measures against their secular counterparts.