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Braunfeld v. Brown (1961)

Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

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Background Information

Jacob Braunfeld was an Orthodox Jew who owned a retail clothing store in Philadelphia. His store was closed on Saturdays because that was his Sabbath, but Pennsylvania's blue law required that his store also be closed on Sundays because that was the traditional Christian Sabbath.

Braunfeld believed this violated his religious liberty because his store needed to be open six days to be economically viable - thus they were forced into competitive and economic disadvantage merely for following their religion. Also, placing such a burden on Jewish store owners would hinder the faith's gaining new adherents.

Thus, Braunfeld complianed that Pennsylvania's blue laws were both a violation of the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishent Clause.

Court Decision

By a 6-3 vote, with Chief Justice Warren writing the majority opinion, the Supreme Court declared Pennsylvania's blue laws constitutional. First, the Court argued that the law did not specifically target Orthodox Judaism - it did not prohibit anyone from practicing tht faith, it "merely" made it more expensive. An individual's freedom to act is not totally free from legislative restriction when the activity violates important social duties or is subversive of good order (Reynolds v. U.S.).

The statute before us does not make criminal the holding of any religious belief or opinion, nor does it force anyone to embrace any religious belief or to say or believe anything in conflict with his religious tenets.

Furthermore, not all Orthodox Jews were inconvenienced by the laws- only those who wanted to work on Sundays. No person is placed in the position of either forsaking his religious practice or facing prosecution. The burden is only indirect. Because of the diversity of religions in the country, it is impossible not to pass laws that inconvenience at least some groups.

If the state regulates conduct by enacting a general law within its power, the purpose and effect of which is to advance the state's secular goals, the statute is valid despite its indirect burden on religious observances unless the state may accomplish its purpose by means which do not impose such a burden.

Justice Potter Stewart dissented from this decision and summed up this objections thusly:

Pennsylvania has passed a law which compels an Orthodox Jew to choose between his religious faith and his economic survival. That is a cruel choice. It is a choice which I think no State can constitutionally demand. For me this is not something that can be swept under the rug and forgotten in the interest of enforced Sunday togetherness. I think the impact of this law upon these appellants grossly violates their constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion.

In his lengthy dissent, Justice William O. Douglas quoted a letter from a pastor, saying that the pastor "has stated my views."

We forgt that, though Sunday-worshipping Christians are in the majority in this country among religious people, we do not have the right to force our practice on the minority. Only a Church which deems itself without error and intolerant of error can justify its intolerance of the minority [...]

...I do not believe that because I have set aside Sunday as a holy day I have the right to force all men to set aside that day also. Why should my faith be favored by the State over any other man's faith?

Significance

According to this decision, the government is not obligated to ensure that there are no inconveniences to religious people as a result of any generally applicable laws. America's diverse religious landscape prevents the government from making sure that there are no indirect burdens on people's religion as a result of laws that are designed for all to follow and to promote the common good.

Although it was true that the particular day of rest (Sunday) was originally selected because of a specific religious tradition, the purpose of the day of rest was declared secular in the end. How that happened is uncertain, but also evidently not important.

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