Document Type



Many who value the contributions of religion to American life have contended that American public life is hostile to religion. They perceive many of the Supreme Court's Religion Clause opinions as hostile to religion, and circulate anecdotes about the antireligious hostility of public life. Studies also suggest that some of the principle actors in American public life systematically marginalize religious viewpoints relative to secular ones. Nevertheless, others are baffled by the suggestion that public life discriminates against religion. These people note that religion is deeply (if controversially) involved in much of contemporary American politics, and dismiss anecdotes about such hostility as isolated instances of departure from a rule of religious accommodation in public life.

This Essay seeks to demonstrate in a more precise way how American public life is hostile to religion. Like so much else, the hostility of public life to religion can be traced to one of the conceptual foundations of liberal political theory: the distinction between the public and the private. The Essay begins with a sketch of this distinction in American liberal thought, noting that the public is generally privileged over the private. The Essay argues that, because knowledge is associated with public life and belief with private life, both the distinction between knowledge and belief and the predominance of the former over the latter are assumed rather than demonstrated. It illustrates this thesis with an analysis of two Supreme Court decisions, Aguillard v. Edwards, a creation science decision, and Employment Division v. Smith, a decision about religious exemptions. The Essay closes with some observations about the significance of recognizing that American public life is hostile to belief.


78 Va. L. Rev. 671

Publication Title

Virginia Law Review