When, if ever, does the free exercise clause of the first amendment give an individual or organization the right to disobey with impunity a valid law of the state? This question is being discussed with increasing frequency and intensity because of the growing number of persons and groups who are going to the courts and claiming such a right on the grounds that the application of certain laws to them would burden their free exercise of religion. Almost all the individuals and some of the groups who claim such a right do so because the laws to which they object require them to do or not to do something that is contrary to what their religion, as they understand it, requires them to do or not to do. Some organizations, however, ask for exemptions simply on the grounds that they are churches or are engaged in religious activity, neither of which, they claim, can be regulated by the government without violating the free exercise clause.

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Copyright © 1990 Thomas J. White Center on law & Government, Notre Dame law School. This article first appeared in Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 4, no. 3 (1990): 591-638.

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