Kent Greenawalt is undoubtedly a brilliant Professor at Columbia Law School and he's written a thought-provoking book on the free exercise of religion that unfortunately, no one will read. I shouldn't say that no one will read it - I'm sure that law school students (especially those in Professor Greenawalt's classes), judges and the fairly limited number of lawyers who routinely practice in this area will read Religion and the Constitution.
One of the reasons this book will not be widely read is that the subject matter, while interesting, is just so difficult to wrap your head around. The first clues that I had that this would be a tough read was when I opened the book and noticed that the Introduction by the author contained 11 fairly detailed footnotes. Oh-oh.
Admittedly, it's been a long time since I was in law school. But reading this paragraph from the introduction made my head throb as memories of those classes in Constitutional Law came back to me:
Many situations in which multiple values are at stake involve difficult trade-offs that are not resolvable by any higher metric that gives much practical assistance. This truth has implications for the coherence we can expect in normative evaluation. Two people sharing the same theoretical approach may disagree about how to resolve a particular problem, and each may have difficulty explaining the exact weighting of relevant considerations that leads her to prefer the outcome she does. Someone who conceives such nuances of difference in normative appraisal will be modest about the opportunities for our practical reason to produce demonstrably correct conclusions for troublesome issues. Recognizing that the majority opinions of American courts often suffer the further liability of being produced by various compromises, such a person will hesitate to condemn judicial work as incoherent or irrational, a charge frequently leveled against the Supreme Court's church-state jurisprudence.
For those for whom this book is directed, it's thoroughly researched and wonderfully informative. Greenawalt begins by sketching out the history of the Free Exercise Clause in the Constitution, its subsequent development, and a brief history of leading Supreme Court decisions. Along the way, he succinctly explains the difference between "originalists" and "nonoriginalists" judges who must determine the meaning constitutional texts. He then allocates a chapter to each of the main religious controversies often confronting judges in today's courts.
Soon, you too will understand how the law answers many vexing religious questions, such as:
Should the government excuse religious pacifists, all pacifists, or no pacifists from a military draft? Given a general requirement that children stay in school up to the age of sixteen, should officials allow a religious group to withdraw their children at an earlier age, so they may undertake vocational training for their communal life? Should a state that prohibits use of peyote allow members of a church to ingest that drug as the center of their worship services? Should a law that forbids gender discrimination in employment leave untouched religious groups that permit only men to be clergy?
These and many other controversial issues involving religion claims and standard legal duties are examined in this scholarly text. If you practice in this area of the law, this book is invaluable.