Protecting Free Exercise of Religion under the Indian and the United States Constitutions: the Doctrine of Essential Practices and the Centrality Test

Khagesh Gautam

Abstract

Free Exercise of Religion is a protected constitutional right under the democratic constitutions of both the biggest democracy in the world ie India and the most powerful democracy in the world ie United States of America. Despite textual similarities in the free-exercise clauses of Constitutions of both of these democracies, there is a big difference in the standards of review whereby free exercise claims are judicially reviewed by their re­spective Supreme Courts. Whereas the US Supreme Court does not give much weight to the sincerity of the religious belief and employs the ‘religion-neutral’ test, the Supreme Court of India gives due weight to the sincerity of the religious belief and employs a ‘reli­gion-central’ test known in Indian free-exercise jurisprudence as the Doctrine of Essential Practices. However, a closer examination of judicial opinions on the point discloses that sincerity of religious belief is not entirely unimportant in US free-exercise jurisprudence but still is not given the kind of importance that it is given in India - a nation that is and has historically been religiously diverse.

This paper closely examines the free-exercise jurisprudence as developed by the respec­tive Supreme Courts and argues that in view of the changing religious diversity in the United States perhaps time has come to re-examine the reluctance of the American courts to give its due weightage to the sincerity of religious belief while judicially reviewing free-exercise claims. Relying on several judicial opinions of the US Supreme Court and its sub­ordinate courts in the US and by demonstrating their factual and doctrinal equivalents in the Supreme Court of India, this paper argues that free-exercise clauses of both the US and Indian Constitutions protect not just the right to believe in whichever religion an indi­vidual chooses but also acts in pursuit of religion. The belief-act distinction - an idea at the core of much of US free-exercise jurisprudence is not what is truly protected by the free-exercise clause. What is protected indeed are the acts done in pursuance of religious belief. A line has to be drawn between the acts that are sincerely done in pursuance of religion and those that are not. This line has to be drawn by the Courts on a case to case basis. And that is where US free-exercise jurisprudence would be well assisted in examining Indian free-exercise jurisprudence on the point.

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The Vienna Journal on International Constitutional Law (ICL Journal) is a forum for broad perspectives on international constitutional law, thus paving the way for novel answers to the challenges facing global legal frameworks. Advised by a body of distinguished jurists, the peer-reviewed journal publishes exceptional scholarship from academics and legal professionals around the globe.

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