Connecticut Law Review Volume 45 – Issue 2

Limiting Principles and Empowering Practices in American Indian Religious Freedoms

Employment Division v. Smith was a watershed moment in First Amendment law, with the Supreme Court holding that neutral statutes of general applicability could not burden the free exercise of religion.  Congress’s subsequent attempts, including the passage of Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, to revive legal protections for religious practice through the legislative and administrative process have received tremendous attention from legal scholars.  Lost in this conversation, however, have been the American Indians at the center of the Smith case.  Indeed, for them, the decision criminalizing the possession of their peyote sacrament was only the last in a series of Supreme Court cases denying American Indian Free Exercise Clause claims. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s Indian cases share a common and previously overlooked feature: in all of them, the Court assessed the Indian claims as too broad or too idiosyncratic to merit Free Exercise Clause protection and instead denied them through a succession of bright line formulations.  Identifying the unrequited search for a “limiting principle” as a basis for analysis, this Article reassesses the religion cases and underlying theoretical questions of institutionalism and equality, in their Indian context.  It then identifies two contemporary policy shifts—namely Congress’s decision to entrust accommodation of Indian religious freedoms to federal agencies and its decision to do so at the tribal, versus individual, level—that have, in some respects, facilitated an “empowering practices” approach to American Indian religious liberties in the post-Smith era.  Taking a descriptive and contextual approach, the Article illuminates opportunities for additional law reform in the American Indian context and also larger questions of institutionalism, equality, and pluralism in religious freedoms law.

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