Within constitutional law, children’s rights have suffered from severe neglect. The issue of parents’ constitutional rights to deny children medical treatment based on religious belief is one area in desperate need of attention. Although the Supreme Court’s 199 decision in Employment Division v. Smith seemingly set forth a relatively clear rule regarding the availability of exemptions from generally applicable laws - such as those requiring parents to ensure that their children receive appropriate medical care - Smith has changed little in this realm, and if anything, it has only confused matters, highlighting the intractable nature of the issue. While Smith emphasized the police power of the state over the individual’s religious motivations and revived the belief/conduct distinction, it also introduced the needlessly confusing concept of “hybrid rights,” which may encompass parental rights to control their children. This brief Essay argues that the Free Exercise Clause is in fact irrelevant to the issue of parents’ rights to make medical decisions for their children and that courts should begin to recognize this irrelevance. The cases involving such claims revolve almost entirely around issues that are largely unrelated to the parents’ religious exercise; in addition, it is unclear that they involve the sort of governmental coercion that is required in order to state a free exercise claim. This Essay concludes by exploring the possible implications of recognizing the irrelevance of parental free exercise in medical decision-making cases.


Employment Division v. Smith, Free Exercise Clause, constitutional law, parental rights, children’s rights, mature minors, hybrid rights, medical decision-making, Wisconsin v. Yoder, due process rights, refusal of medical treatment on religious grounds

Publication Date


Document Type


Place of Original Publication

Cardozo Law Review

Publication Information

32 Cardozo Law Review 1857 (2011)


COinS B. Jessie Hill Faculty Bio