How should school officials determine when they must accommodate a religious-liberty claim under the free-exercise clause?

Monday, December 3, 2007

The application of the “compelling interest” test, established by the Supreme Court in 1963 in Sherbert v. Verner, was sharply curtailed by the 1990 Supreme Court decision Employment Division v. Smith. But some states — such as Florida, Texas and Connecticut — have passed laws requiring the use of a compelling-interest test in free-exercise cases. Moreover, since most cases involving public schools involve more than one constitutional right (e.g., the religion claim can be linked with a parental right or free-speech claim), some might argue that the compelling-interest test must be used even under Smith.

Regardless of how this is eventually settled in the courts, public schools fulfill the spirit of the First Amendment when they use the Sherbert test to accommodate the religious claims of students and parents where feasible.