A Political Process Theory of Judicial Review Under the Religion Clauses – Note by Carlton Morse

From Volume 80, Number 4 (May 2007)

Few areas of constitutional law remain more captive to the subjective whims of judicial preference than the First Amendment’s religion clauses. This condition results in part from the Court’s notorious inability to agree on a uniform standard of review under either the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses. This instability matters because, as Justice Scalia notes, “[w]hat distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle.” As concerns the religion clauses, a stabilizing principle may be found in political process theory, a set of ideas that, while generally familiar to constitutional theory, have yet to be comprehensively applied to either free exercise or establishment controversies.

Process theory embraces “[t]he notion that courts should exercise judicial review almost exclusively to protect democracy and guarantee the fairness of legal processes.” Conversely, process theory rejects the notion that courts should enforce “substantive” policy preferences that cannot be justified on these “process-oriented” grounds, as they are more properly left to the vicissitudes of the political branches. Borrowing heavily from the literature of civic republicanism, this Note argues that process theory should be broadened to account for the unique contributions of religion to the political process. This Note further argues that, using process theory, courts should interpret the First Amendment’s religion clauses as process-oriented safeguards for the political contributions of religious faith and institutions. Finally, courts should reject a jurisprudence that employs the religion clauses as vehicles for the enforcement of substantive conceptions of free exercise and disestablishment.