© 2019

The Free Exercise of Religion in America

Its Original Constitutional Meaning

  • Provides a definitive overview of the concept of "free exercise of religion" in the context of constitutional law

  • Contributes to a better understanding of early American constitutional history

  • Relies heavily on primary sources, while also taking into account a review of key relevant scholarship


Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-xiv
  2. Ellis M. West
    Pages 1-16
  3. Ellis M. West
    Pages 33-51
  4. Ellis M. West
    Pages 195-232
  5. Ellis M. West
    Pages 293-308
  6. Back Matter
    Pages 309-317

About this book


This book explains the original meaning of the two religion clauses of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law [1] respecting an establishment of religion or [2] prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As the book shows, both clauses were intended to protect the free exercise of religion or religious freedom.  West shows the position taken by early Americans on four issues: (1) the general meaning of the “free exercise of religion,” including whether it is different from the meaning of “no establishment of religion”; (2) whether the free exercise of religion may be intentionally and directly limited, and if so, under what circumstances; (3) whether laws regulating temporal matters that also have a religious sanction violate the free exercise of religion; and (4) whether the free exercise of religion gives persons a right to be exempt from obeying valid civil laws that unintentionally and indirectly make it difficult or impossible to practice their religion in some way. A definitive work on the subject and a major contribution to the field of constitutional law and history, this volume is key to a better understanding of the ongoing constitutional adjudication based on the religion clauses of the First Amendment.


politics and religion constitutional law religious freedom free exercise Congress American Political Development First Amendment Church and state religious sanction Supreme Court history rights of conscience freedom Bill of Rights us politics religion and society

Authors and affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of RichmondRichmond, VAUSA

About the authors

Ellis M. West is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond, USA. His scholarship focuses on the religion clauses of the First Amendment, as they were originally understood and have been interpreted by the US Supreme Court.

Bibliographic information


“THE FREE EXERCISE OF RELIGION IN AMERICA: ITS ORIGINAL CONSTITUTIONAL MEANING is a tour de force. It will surely become the book from which future debate over the historical origins of the religion clauses, particularly the Free Exercise clause, begins. … THE FREE EXERCISE OF RELIGION IN AMERICA lands in our scholarly midst at a time of continuing political and legal struggles over the meaning of religious liberty.” (Andrew R. Murphy, Law and Politics Book Review, October, 2019)“The long chapters are superbly researched and handle the state provisions on religious liberty much better than anything I know.” (Ralph Ketcham, Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science, Syracuse University, USA)