Marci A. Hamilton

God vs. the Gavel

The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty (2nd Edition)

Cambridge University Press 2014

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The constitution guarantees Americans freedom of religious practice and freedom from government interference in the same same. But what does religious liberty mean in...

The constitution guarantees Americans freedom of religious practice and freedom from government interference in the same same. But what does religious liberty mean in practice? Does it mean that the government must permit any religious practice, even one that’s nominally illegal? Clearly not. You can’t shoot someone even if God tells you to. Does it mean, then, that religious liberty is a sort of fiction and that the government can actually closely circumscribe religious practice? Clearly not. The government can’t ban a putatively religious practice just because it’s expedient to do so.

So where’s the line? In God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty (Cambridge University Press, Second Edition, 2014), Marci A. Hamilton argues that it’s shifting rapidly. Traditionally, the government, congress, and courts agreed that though Americans should enjoy extensive religious freedom, that freedom did not include license to do anything the religious might like. A sensible accommodation between church and state had to be made so that both the church and state could do their important work.

According to Hamilton, in  recent decades radical religious reformers have mounted a successful campaign to throw the idea of a sensible accommodation out the window. They have expanded the scope of religious liberty and thereby limited the ability of the government to protect citizens generally. In this sense, she says, religion–a force for great social good, in her mind–has been made into an instrument of harm for many Americans. Listen in.

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