Free Exercise of Religion Before the Bench: Empirical Evidence from the Federal Courts

Michael Heise, Cornell Law School
Gregory C. Sisk, University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)


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We analyze various factors that influence judicial decisions in cases involving Free Exercise Clause or religious accommodation claims and decided by lower federal courts. Religious liberty claims, including those moored in the Free Exercise Clause, typically generate particularly difficult questions about how best to structure the sometimes contentious relation between the religious faithful and the sovereign government. Such difficult questions arise frequently in and are often framed by litigation. Our analyses include all digested Free Exercise and religious accommodation claim decisions by federal court of appeals and district court judges from 1996 through 2005. As it relates to one key extra-judicial factor — judicial ideology — our main finding is that judicial ideology did not correlate with case outcomes. While judicial ideology did not emerge as a significant influence in the Free Exercise context, however, other variables did. Notably, Muslim claimants fared poorly, cases involving exemption from anti-discrimination laws were significantly more likely to result in pro-accommodation rulings, and Asian and Latino judges as well as judges who were former law professors were particularly amenable to Free Exercise and accommodation claims. On balance, our results paint a more complex and nuanced picture of how extra-judicial factors inform Free Exercise and accommodation litigation outcomes as well as judicial decisionmaking more generally.