Conscience and Community: Understanding the Freedom of Religion

Responding to Protections and Applications of the First Amendment Today

Georgetown University,
Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs
Reproduced with permission

Richard Garnett*

“Religion,” said Justice William Douglas in his Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) opinion, is “an individual experience.” The opinion was a partial dissent, and this statement is partially correct. But, it does not tell the entire story.  Many “religious experiences” are those of monks, mystics, and prophets – and of salesmen, coaches, teachers, and cops. But, many are also of peoples and tribes and congregations. As Justice Douglas’s colleague, Justice William Brennan, insisted in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos (1987), “[f]or many individuals, religious activity derives meaning in large measure from participation in a larger religious community. Such a community represents an ongoing tradition of shared beliefs, an organic entity not reducible to a mere aggregation of individuals.” [Full Text]