Laura Portuondo


There is an emerging discrepancy in free exercise and equal protection law. For decades, the Supreme Court has maintained that a law’s effects on a protected group are usually insufficient to trigger heightened scrutiny under either the Free Exercise or Equal Protection Clause. This longstanding rule has rendered it virtually impossible to challenge facially neutral laws on constitutional race, sex, and religious discrimination grounds, even where such laws inflict substantial harms on protected groups. Recent free exercise decisions, however, have abandoned this traditional barrier to enforcing constitutional equality rights. In doing so, they have subverted the usual rule that a law’s effects do not much matter, not just under the Free Exercise Clause, but also under the Equal Protection Clause.

This Article argues that recent free exercise law makes a powerful case that a law’s effects both can and should play a meaningful role in triggering equal protection scrutiny. Free exercise and equal protection cases historically relied on the same theoretical and doctrinal principles to dismiss a meaningful role for effects in triggering heightened scrutiny. Recent free exercise law—by providing such a role for effects—has overcome each objection. In the process, it has created a doctrinal roadmap for overcoming the same objections in the equal protection context. It has also provided good reason to do so. Recent free exercise decisions have justified attention to effects by insisting that laws that devalue protected interests merit heightened scrutiny. In doing so, they have endorsed a broad new theory of equality that applies to, and requires attention to effects in, the equal protection context.

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