“Weaponizing”

Rather an unfortunate metaphor in the by-line of Professor Dale Carpenter’s recent post: “What started out as a shield for minority religious practitioners like Native Americans and the Amish is in danger of being weaponized into a sword against civil rights.”

One might have thought, even relatively recently, that religious freedom was a “civil right.” But no longer: it is now said to be the enemy of “civil rights.” And I suppose that what is “weaponized” will depend on one’s perspective. From a different point of view, one might instead believe that it is the vast arsenal of antidiscrimination norms, and the staggering expansion of the state’s interest in vindicating specific sorts of dignitarian harms, that have been “weaponized.” But Professor Carpenter need not worry about one small sword in Indiana or Arkansas; the armamentarium arrayed against it is truly stunning.

Here’s how I see the situation, as described in my essay, Free Exercise By Moonlight, from which I’ll post a few selections in the coming days as it is intimately connected to these topical concerns (footnotes omitted):

The modern expansion of the reach of the state has resulted in a concomitant increase in the kinds of recognition, and validation, that it can now confer. As the ambit of state authority has expanded, the ways in which people may be negatively affected, or “harmed,” by a state-sanctioned religious accommodation have likewise expanded. Religious accommodations are now said, for example, to implicate injuries to the “dignity” of those who oppose them, the implication of which is that the state’s authority includes the power to confer individual dignity as a self-standing civic good. People want to be dignified by the state, their self-worth to be accorded official validation, and they perceive state-countenanced indignities meant for the protection of religious freedom as real injuries demanding state remediation.

Yet offenses to dignity are only the most extreme example of the overall expansion of government interests. For we are now at some considerable distance from Smith’s dystopian warnings about the threat of anarchy or governmental impotence that would result from overgenerous religious accommodations. In a society in which the government assumes an increasingly large role in the life of the citizenry, more injuries are transformed into legally (and perhaps even constitutionally) cognizable rights. The number and type of state interests that qualify as “compelling” swell to match the new dignitarian and other harms caused by permissive religious accommodations. And the protection of rights becomes a zero sum game, as every win for religious accommodation is a legally cognizable, but unvindicated, loss for somebody else.

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