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Two Concepts of Religious Liberty: The Natural Rights and Moral Autonomy Approaches to the Free Exercise of Religion


Due in part to the influence of Michael McConnell, free exercise exemptionism is generally thought to be compatible with, if not dictated by, the founders’ church-state political philosophy. This article rejects that position, arguing instead that America's constitutional tradition offers two distinct conceptions of religious liberty: the founders’ natural rights free exercise and modern moral autonomy exemptionism. The article aims to distinguish these two approaches by clarifying how they are grounded upon divergent philosophical understandings of human freedom and by explaining how they advance different views of what religious liberty is, how it is threatened, and, accordingly, how it is best protected. The article also attempts to demonstrate how our modern approach expands the protection for religious liberty in some ways but limits it in others.

Corresponding author
Vincent Phillip Muñoz is Tocqueville Associate Professor of Political Science & Concurrent Associate Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame, 217 O'Shaughnessy Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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