Laura Weinrib, “Freedom of Conscience and the Civil Liberties Path Not Taken”

Recent efforts by opponents of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights to reorient their agenda around religious freedom have sparked an explosion of scholarship on religious claims for exemption from generally applicable laws. Professor Weinrib will discuss an early antecedent of this strategy: the campaign by the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the organizational precursor of the ACLU, to secure exemptions from military service for conscientious objectors during the First World War. The conception of liberty of conscience that the ACLU’s founders advanced, which they linked to an “Anglo-Saxon tradition” of individual rights, clashed with Progressive understandings of democratic citizenship and failed to gain broad-based traction. Civil liberties advocates consequently reframed their wartime work in terms that foregrounded democratic dissent rather than individual autonomy. By the Second World War, the new emphasis on expressive freedom had worked its way into American constitutional law. Even then, however, most Americans rejected a court-centered and constitutional right to exemption from generally applicable laws.

Laura Weinrib is Assistant Professor of Law and Herbert and Marjorie Fried Teaching Scholar at the University of Chicago Law School.

This Chicago’s Best Ideas talked was recorded on February 17, 2016.

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