Religious Sincerity and the Reasons for Religious Freedom

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(4) 866 –877
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919861150
Any observer of courts—or even political discourse more
generally—over the past several years will recognize that
the matter of religious accommodation has become some-
thing of a big deal. Most prominently, the Supreme Court
has settled cases involving an employer’s refusal to pro-
vide employees with insurance coverage for contracep-
tion (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores [2014]) and a
business owner’s refusal of service to a same-sex couple
(Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights
Commission [2018]), both on grounds of religious objec-
tion. Vice President Mike Pence’s most noteworthy (or
notorious) act prior to hitching his wagon to Donald
Trump was an effort to pass religious freedom legislation
in Indiana that ignited a firestorm among many who saw
it as an effort to legalize discrimination. The academy has
taken note of the rise of religious accommodation as a
salient political issue, with a flood of articles and books
over the past few years taking on the matter (e.g., Esbeck
2017; Patten 2017a, 2017b; Sepinwall 2015; Tebbe 2017;
Vallier 2016a; Vallier and Weber 2018).
Interesting among all this attention is the relative
neglect of an absolutely fundamental part of any attempt
to adjudicate religious claims in a legal-political setting:
sincerity. Most people generally assume—and courts
have likewise insisted—that for a religious belief or com-
mitment to warrant accommodation, the claimant’s pro-
fession of belief must be sincere. Insincere religious
professions, in other words, are not protected by the Free
Exercise clause of the First Amendment of the United
States Constitution, nor by any statutory measures aimed
at protecting religious freedom. This bright-line standard
for the worthiness of religious claims is intuitive enough,
but it has been only thinly theorized by either courts or
theorists and scholars of law and religion. Some of the
existing literature focuses on countering religious fraud,
rather than adjudicating sincerity in free exercise claims
(Greenawalt 2006; Senn 1990, 110–18; also United States
v. Ballard [1944]). The literature that examines sincerity
in free exercise contexts tends to focus on judicial tests
for evaluating a claimant’s sincerity (e.g., Adams and
Barmore 2014; Chapman 2017, 70; Loewentheil and
Reiner Platt 2018). Comparatively less theoretical atten-
tion has been paid to the underlying notion of sincerity
itself. (I will say more about this distinction below.)
Courts, for their part, tend almost always to grant that
professions of belief brought to their attention are sincere
(Chapman 2017, 1214). The rare belief actually to be
rejected as insincere is typically so transparently conniv-
ing as to gather little sympathy (e.g., the couple who
claimed to be the founders and only members of the
861150PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919861150Political Research QuarterlyGolemboski
1Augustana University, Sioux Falls, SD, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Golemboski, Government & International Affairs, Augustana
University, 2001 S. Summit Ave., Sioux Falls, SD 57197, USA.
Religious Sincerity and the Reasons
for Religious Freedom
David Golemboski1
Embedded in U.S. legal frameworks governing the free exercise of religion is a criterion that has received surprisingly
little theoretical attention: sincerity. Only those professions of belief that are sincere warrant legal accommodation.
Nearly all of the existing literature on sincerity focuses on judicial “tests,” or evidentiary frameworks, for judging
sincerity. This paper, in contrast, interrogates the notion of sincerity itself, developing a conception of what properly
constitutes a sincere profession of belief. That conception includes three elements: genuineness, nonopportunism,
and intelligibility. I then consider a fourth potential component of sincerity, vigilance, which concerns a believer’s
consistency in living in accordance with their belief. A number of authors have recently proposed judicial tests requiring
some sufficient degree of vigilance, but I argue that a vigilance criterion is incompatible with the fundamental values and
objectives that underwrite the commitment to religious liberty in liberal political orders.
religion, free exercise, sincerity, religious liberty, consistency

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