Religious Freedom in America (L57 320)

John Inazu and Mark Valeri


The intersection of religion and law in American society has sparked some of the fiercest cultural engagements in recent memory: Should a for-profit religious corporation have a right not to fund birth control for its employees? Can a public college expel campus religious groups whose membership is not open to all students? May a Muslim grow a beard for religious reasons in prison? Should a cake baker or a florist be permitted to refuse services for a gay wedding? Can a church hire and fire its ministers for any reason?

These current debates and the issues that frame them are interwoven in the American story. In fact, the story of religious liberty in American history sheds light on the very meaning of this country as a political experiment in democratic pluralism. The architects of the American political order experienced and anticipated tensions between “church” and “state.” They wrote about the differences between “mere belief” and religious “conduct.” They debated the elusive “wall of separation.” They struggled to define the proper boundaries for the exercise of minority religious (and non-religious) beliefs, at various times including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, atheists, Muslims, and evangelicals.

This interdisciplinary course introduces students to the major texts and historical arguments concerning religious liberty in the United States. This course will draw from the respective expertise of the instructors, exposing students to a variety of scholarly methods related to the issue: legal history and case law, intellectual history and canonical texts, social history and narrative accounts, and political philosophy and contemporary analyses.

We will integrate our major disciplinary approaches—law, political theory, and religious history—by placing key constitutional texts and cases into a chronologically organized historical framework. Specifically, the course covers European precedents to English settlement, the colonial period, nation-making and the Constitution, the early national period of religious revival and expansion, the Civil War and Fourteenth Amendment, Mormonism, fundamentalism and secularism in the Progressive Era, the Second World War and religious pacifism, The Cold War, the 1960s and school prayer, the rise of the Religious Right, and recent cases involving religious freedom.


  • Gain a general understanding of the theory and history that form the background to current religion clause jurisprudence.

  • Learn the basic law that comprises religion clause doctrine.

  • Recognize the policy and value choices that inform the development of law and doctrine.

Course Listing

This is an interdisciplinary course cross-listed with religion and politics, political science, American Culture Studies, legal studies, and religious studies. It qualifies for the Humanities (HUM) and Social Differentiation (SD) course attributes.


  • Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America (2004)

  • Course pack

Course Requirements 

Grades will be based on analysis papers (20%), mid-term essay exam (25%), final essay exam (30%), op-ed writing project (20%), and class participation (5%). Be sure to follow Professor Inazu’s writing guidelines for all submissions.

Analysis papers

  • The instructors will post weekly discussion questions beginning with the second week of the course.  These questions should guide students’ reading and preparation for discussion sections.  Each student will sign up for three analysis papers due over the course of the semester. These brief (1-2 pages) analyses, in response to the posted questions, are due by 5pm on Thursday.

Op-ed assignment

  • You will engage in a short but ongoing writing exercise over the course of the semester.  Your objective will be to produce a 900-word opinion piece on a topic of your choice related to the class.  Timely completion of all assignments related to this writing exercise will factor into your grade for this assignment.


  • There will be a take-home, five-page essay mid-term assignment and a take-home, seven-page essay for a final exam.

Class participation

  • The class participation component of your grade will be based on instructor and teaching assistant evaluations of your interactions, preparedness, and thoughtfulness. That evaluation includes attendance, promptness, and active participation. If you are unable to attend class on a given day (or you are unprepared but would still like to attend class), you will need to email your course assistant in advance of class.

Computer and Phone Use 

Laptop computers are not permitted in class or discussion sections unless you qualify for a recognized exception. You may not use your phones or other electronic gadgets.


Professor Inazu will hold office hours by appointment in Room 537 of Anheuser-Busch Hall (the law school).  You can schedule an appointment here.

Professor Valeri will hold office hours by appointment in Room 113 of Umrath Hall.

You can also email us with questions or concerns. We will make every effort to respond to your emails within one day of your having sent them, with the exception of emails sent over the weekend or holidays, which we will answer by the following business day. You should feel free to use office hours not only to discuss our substantive readings but also to obtain help on your writing, to ask questions about law school or graduate school, or to talk about other academic or career interests.

Discussion Sections (Fall 2018)

Your discussion sections will meet on Fridays and be led by the course assistants:

Section A (10 am) Duncker 1 – Jack Broitman
Section B (10 am) Eads 215 – Avi Spira
Section C (11 am) Seigle 111 – Maggie Burreson
Section D (11 am) Seigle 210 – Avi Spira
Section E (10 am) Seigle 111 – Maggie Burreson
Section F (11 am) Seigle 208 – Jack Broitman

Your course assistants are available to meet with you by appointment.

Op-Ed Assignment

During the course of the semester, you will craft a short opinion piece that addresses the topic of your choice in this course.  You can focus on a case, a historical event, a debate, or some other issue.

The purpose of this assignment is to help you develop the skill of translating and advocating complex issues effectively.  That means good writing, clear thinking, and appropriate tone.  The subject matter of this course provides an abundance of provocative and controversial topics from which to draw.  (You are welcome to choose a current issue or controversy, but you need not do so.  Feel free to focus on a historical case or event that is of interest to you.)

Another challenge of this assignment will be to convey legal, historical, or political concepts and ideas in a clear and accessible manner in a short amount of space.  This is a far more difficult task than you might think, and you will benefit from practicing this skill.

Your piece should be between 800 – 1000 words.

Course Deadlines and Other Important Dates (Fall 2018)

Oct 3 – mid-term distributed at end of class
Oct 10 – mid-term due to your course assistant at beginning of class
Oct 12 – op-ed topic due to course assistant at beginning of discussion section
Nov 2 – rough draft of op-ed due to course assistant at beginning of discussion section
Nov 19 – final version of op-ed due to course assistant at beginning of class
December 7 – final exam distributed at end of discussion section
December 14 – final exam due to course assistant by 5pm

Assignments (Fall 2018)

GS = Gaustad and Schmidt; CP = Course pack

Aug 27 Culture Wars CP 4-8
Aug 29 Shooting Wars – selected readings
Aug 31 Discussion Sections
Sept 3 NO CLASS (Labor Day)
Sept 5 Four Arguments for Religious Liberty CP 9-39
Sept 7 Discussion Sections
Sept 10 The Categories of Rights and Liberties – Declaration of Independence and this opinion piece by Prof. Inazu
Sept 12 The People GS 49-94
Sept 14 Discussion Sections
Sept 17 Religion and Nationalism GS 121-138
Sept 19 The Text CP 40-60
Sept 21 Discussion Sections
Sept 24 Nationalism and Religion GS 139-161; 184-202
Sept 26 Schism Around Abolition, Sectionalism, Slavery GS 162-183
Sept 28 Discussion Sections
Oct 1 Internal Church Disputes CP 61-76
Oct 3 The First Amendment Comes to the States CP 77-85
Oct 5 Discussion Sections
Oct 8 New Religions and Mormonism GS 162-183
Oct 10 Killing Mormonism CP 86-97
Oct 12 Discussion Sections
Oct 17 Scopes, Secularism, and Fundamentalism GS 209-254
Oct 19 Discussion Sections
Oct 22 Religion in Public Education Today CP 98-125
Oct 24 Public Religion and Anti-Fascism GS 329-335
Oct 26 Discussion Sections
Oct 29 The Jehovah’s Witnesses Reshape the First Amendment CP 126-145
Oct 31 Civic Religion and Godless Communists GS 335-348
Nov 2 Discussion Sections
Nov 5 Social Protest, Vietnam, and Sexual Revolution GS 374-397
Nov 7 Public Displays of Religion CP 146-167
Nov 9 Discussion Sections
Nov 12 School Prayer CP 168-185
Nov 14 Evangelicals and Political Engagement GS 398-427
Nov 16 Discussion Sections
Nov 19 Taxes and Exclusions CP 186-211
Nov 21 NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)
Nov 23 NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)
Nov 26 Pluralism and Monism (TBD)
Nov 28 The Supreme Court and Congress in Conflict CP 211-241
Nov 30 Discussion Sections
Dec 3 Recent Free Exercise Cases CP 242-276
Dec 5 The Limits of Religious Pluralism (TBD)
Dec 7 Discussion Sections