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Religious Regulation and the Courts: The Judiciary's Changing Role in Protecting Minority Religions from Majoritarian Rule

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Following the 1990 Smith v. Employment Division of Oregon ruling on the limits of religious freedom, many protested that the Supreme Court had opened the door for majoritarian oppression of minority rights. Using data collected on 2,109 court cases on religion from 1981–1996 we document recent trends in court decisions on religion and address questions posed by supply-side theory, legal scholars, and the sociology of law. We find that religious sects and cults were more likely to be involved in court cases and more likely to receive unfavorable rulings. Multivariate models confirm these finding and support the charges of legal scholars that the Smith decision has decreased the rate of rulings favoring religious groups. Finally, we find that the Smith decision had both a period effect and a case precedent effect.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: 6480 East Pioneer, Roscommon, Michigan 48653., Email: 2: Department of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University, 211 Oswald Tower, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802., Email:

Publication date: 2001-09-01

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