Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



Reader 1

George Thomas

Reader 2

Kenneth P. Miller

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Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2017 John S. Blattner


This thesis provides a comprehensive history of Supreme Court Free Exercise Clause jurisprudence from 1879 until the present day. It describes how a jurisdictional approach to free exercise dominated the Court’s rulings from its first Free Exercise Clause case in 1879 until Sherbert v. Verner in 1963, and how Sherbert introduced an accommodationist precedent which was ineffectively, incompletely, and inconsistently defined by the Court. This thesis shows how proponents of accommodationism furthered a false narrative overstating the scope and consistency of Sherbert’s precedent following the Court’s repudiation of accommodationism and return to full jurisdictionalism with Employment Division v. Smith (1990). It then shows how this narrative inspired a massive bipartisan coalition in favor of codifying accommodationism, and how this coalition succeeded in passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. The RFRA coalition eventually fractured, as RFRA’s implications began to conflict with principles and objectives of liberal interest groups and the Democratic Party. This thesis posits that the fracture of the RFRA coalition can be traced back directly to confusions over Sherbert’s precedent.


  • Best Senior Thesis in Government