Steven D. Smith
89 Texas L. Rev. 917
In this book review, Smith attempts to distill the overall purpose of the first volume of Douglas Laycock’s collected works, reflects on its contributions to our understanding of the law, and notes what, in his view, are its primary limitations.
As for the distillation, Smith finds that Laycock’s work centers on a seemingly simple yet powerful proposition: the Religion Clauses are about religious liberty, and a commitment to religious liberty requires minimizing governmental influence over individual choices of religious belief and practice. In Laycock’s terms, this is “substantive neutrality.”
Next, Smith turns to the context in which Laycock is working. Two troublesome aspects to which he draws attention are the disarray of both the doctrine and case law of religious freedom as well as the divisions among the larger society of judges and scholars addressing such questions. Even more problematic, Smith argues, is that religious freedom has contributed to an increasingly diverse population in which the classical religious premises and rationales are unlikely to enjoy universal acceptance. As a result, religious freedom subverts its own supporting rationales and threatens to cancel itself out. Laycock’s goal, according to Smith, has been to devise a plausible account of the religion provisions of the Constitution that can be used to resolve contemporary controversies.
Smith raises two criticisms, one secular and one devout. The first questions why religious belief and conduct should be singled out for special constitutional protection. Smith explores some of the implications of Laycock’s reasoning and whether it actually answers the question why religious liberty.
Then, Smith examines Laycock’s insistence that all religious expressions by government are constitutionally forbidden, despite such historical practices as appointing a legislative chaplain or declaring a national day of prayer. As part of this examination, Smith analyzes the different facets of Laycock’s claim that the Establishment Clause contains a principle forbidding religious expression by government, ultimately concluding that the logic is somewhat frail.
Finally, Smith turns to Laycock’s “Puritan Mistake.” According to Laycock, religion is essentially private choices about what to believe with respect to a set of ultimate questions about God and the cosmos. So, those who think government should express support for some religious view are demanding that government put its imprimatur on their own essentially private beliefs. Yet, argues Smith, for many people this position neglects important aspects of faith, such as its communal and even public nature. So, Laycock commits a version of the error that he attributes to the Puritans and others—people interpret the First Amendment according to how they view religion. Smith finds Laycock guilty of the same.