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This book assesses the concept of religious liberty in the United States according to the political theory of John Locke. Protecting the individual freedom of religion without infringing on the rights of others or on legitimate political authority requires delicate balance. The work analyzes Locke’s concept of religious liberty and, from it, derives nine criteria for locating that balance. The most important of these criteria requires government neutrality and equality before the law. The United States has historically struggled with providing this balance, particularly through Supreme Court decisions, resulting in the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Application of Locke’s criteria for balancing religious liberty and government authority to three recent cases—a government employee, an employer, and a small business owner—reveal that RFRA legislation threatens this balance by undermining neutral government action and treats citizens unequally before the law.



Chapter 1. Balancing Religious Liberty in the United States

Alzate provides a unique approach to assessing religious liberty in the United States by applying John Locke’s political theory. The United States has struggled with balancing religious liberty against both government authority and the rights of other citizens in society, a struggle which culminated in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). This chapter sets up three cases—the government employee, the employer, and the small business owner—that demonstrate the difficulty in identifying the proper extent and limits of religious liberty. Alzate argues that Locke’s theory of religious liberty provides clear criteria for assessing the concept. Given the indebtedness of American political ideas on Locke’s political theory, these criteria are both relevant and necessary.

Elissa B. Alzate

Chapter 2. John Locke and Religious Liberty

Alzate analyzes John LockeLocke, John’s theory of religious libertyreligious liberty found in ALetter Concerning TolerationLetter Concerning Toleration to elucidate the individual’s right of religious belief and worship, as well as the origins, extent, and limitations of that right. Although freedom of religionfreedom of religionreligious liberty is an individual right, it is necessarily a political issue. By examining this concept in conjunction with his broader political theory of the Second TreatiseSecond Treatise (of Government), Alzate discerns nine criteriareligious libertycriteria for that Locke argued were essential to balancing religious liberty against other rights and the political authoritypolitical authority of government. The two most important of these criteria are government neutralityneutrality and equality under the lawequality under the law. Thus, in protecting the individual freedom of religion, the government must above all remain neutral and treat all citizens and religions equally.

Elissa B. Alzate

Chapter 3. Religious Liberty, Free Exercise, and RFRA in the United States

Alzate provides an overview of the Supreme Court’s attempts to balance the individual freedom of religionfreedom of religionreligious liberty against both government authority and the rights and freedoms of other people. This is particularly difficult in laws that are otherwise neutral and of general applicability but have the effect of restricting religious libertyreligious liberty. The difficulty in finding this balance resulted in the Religious Freedom Restoration ActReligious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which imposes the compelling interest test on neutral laws that infringe on religious liberty. This chapter examines the significance of RFRA, as well as the case history leading up to it. Alzate analyzes the concept of religious liberty embodied in this history as applied to three examples: the government employee, the employer, and the small business owner.

Elissa B. Alzate

Chapter 4. Assessing Religious Liberty in a Lockean Society

Alzate applies Locke’s criteria for legitimate government action to three examples of religious libertyreligious liberty in the United States: the government employee (Kim Davis), the employer (Hobby Lobby), and the small business owner (Barronelle Stutzman). The difficulty the United States has had in balancing freedom of religion with political authoritypolitical authority and other rights derives from the lack of clear, consistently applied criteria. Application of Locke’s nine criteriareligious libertycriteria for reveals that debates over religious liberty in the US for the most part appropriately balance individual rights against other interests. Still, there is room for improvement. The “least restrictive meansleast restrictive means” requirement of RFRARFRAReligious Freedom Restoration Act legislation unduly restricts legitimate government authority, thereby undermining civil societycivil society. Moreover, the practice of exempting some individuals from otherwise neutral laws of general applicability introduces inequalityequality under the law in the rule of law.

Elissa B. Alzate


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