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ARDA/ASREC Working Papers Series

Defining and Redefining Religious Freedom:
A Quantitative Assessment of Free Exercise Cases in the U.S. State Courts, 1981-2011

Robert R. Martin and Roger Finke, Pennsylvania State University


This paper explores the consequences of free exercise rights in the United States as well examining the struggle over how to define the meaning and breadth of this right. After providing an overview of the historical origins and consequences of religious freedoms in America, we review the milestone Supreme Court decisions that have shaped the practical meaning of free exercise rights over the last century. We then provide a quantitative assessment of court decisions in free exercise cases from 1981 to 2011, reviewing the legal tests used to adjudicate these cases and describing how case outcomes and use of these tests vary over time. We find that fluctuating judicial and legislative standards for interpreting free exercise rights have powerful effects on the outcomes of these decisions, particularly for members of minority faiths.

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