How Free Can Religion Be?

Author:Hailey, Mel
Position:Book review

How Free Can Religion Be? By Randall P. Bezanson. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 296 pp. $29.95.

Occasionall one finds a book in the crowded field of church-state relations that takes a well-mined subject and presents its familiar material in a refreshingly thought-provo-king way.-Such is the work of Randall P. Bezanson. Perhaps Bezanson is overly ambitious in scope as he takes the reader on a journey of Supreme Court thought from Beynolds v. U. S. (1878) to Locke v. Davey(2004). After all, there are 44 Supreme Court cases relating to religious liberty from Beholds to Everson v. Board of Education (1947), and there are another 137 cases in the years from Everson to Locke v. Davey (2004). Yet this book is not about numbers of cases (the author deals with only eight) or about particular justices--it is about "questions and arguments," and, more importantly, about the jurisprudence of religious liberty.

The saga, in the author's words, involves three stages from "The Old Time Religion: Separation of Church and State" transitioning into "The Time of Testing" and entering the current stage of "The New Awakening. In short, the author sees the Supreme Court paradigm of strict separation eroding in the 1960s as the Court began to carve out exceptions resulting in a more "porous" wall dividing church and state. Finally, the third stage beginning in the late 1980s becomes a time where the "meaning of free exercise o religion was to be radically changed, from a guarantee of liberty to a guarantee of nondiscrimination against religion, and the meaning of an establishment of religion was ... altered from a rule strictly separating religion and government to a rule that permits and even requires government support for religion and religious institutions" (p. 148).

The eight cases which make up the author's eight "stories" or chapters are Reynolds v. United States (1878), Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), Engel v. Vitale (1962), Employment Division v. Smith (1990), Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995), and Locke v. Davey (2004). The cases are listed just as the author presents them, purposely taking a few out of chronological order. However, this is an aid to the reader and does no harm to the flow of the argument.

Bezanson writes each "story" as a Socratic dialogue where he invites the reader to join with the litigants, lawyers and justices...

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