Illinois Law Review Symposium on Substantial Burdens…and a Few Thoughts on the New Accommodation Skepticism

The University of Illinois Law Review has posted a set of essays on the issue of substantial burdens. These essays were meant to coincide with the Supreme Court’s Zubik decision, and they did, though the Court did not really oblige in entirely avoiding the substantial burden issue. So much the better. Kudos to Michael Helfand in particular for assembling such a varied little troop. I was pleased to be among them.

My essay, Substantial Burdens Imply Central Beliefs, takes the Brennan-esque view that any society that is amenable to religious accommodation is going to have to involve itself to some extent in evaluating religious claims, brought by religious claimants, that the law imposes upon religious exercise. “Religious” is the key term here. In the end, and once we have taken on the business of “religious” accommodation, there is no avoiding a good bit of church-state entanglement. To render the substantial burden inquiry coherent, we need some concrete, but generous, idea of what religion is. Here the essay briefly considers the systematic nature of religion, and the sense in which courts can only evaluate whether a law imposes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise by recourse to a background of interlocking beliefs and exercise of which the exercise at issue forms one part. Efforts to avoid this type of entanglement, and to segregate civil or secular burdens from religious burdens, are infeasible and, more importantly, miss the very point of religious accommodation–an official acknowledgment of specifically religious reasons (not personal reasons, or financial reasons, or emotional reasons, or some other kind of reasons) for non-compliance with the law. The effort to isolate civil/secular reasons from religious reasons is itself the latest iteration of an old debate in liberal political theory. Here, and with a few examples from the Hobby Lobby case, I argue that it is unsuccessful. It fundamentally misunderstands the religious dimension of the objection. It mistakes a claimant’s money for its principles.

This is the first of two projects I’ve been working on concerning what I am calling the new accommodation skepticism. Over the last few years, religious accommodation has come under fire from those who are largely indifferent, unsympathetic, or hostile to religion–particularly organized religion, and most particularly Christianity. But there is a new, emerging skepticism from other quarters–from those who are sympathetic to religion and may themselves even be religious believers. Such skepticism is not opposition to accommodation full stop. But it does observe some of the ways in which the regime of religious accommodation prevalent since the 1960s has had profound, and profoundly non-neutral, and indeed often profoundly regrettable, effects on the American legal conception of religion, a conception that is achieving ever-greater salience in the so-called “Rise of the Nones” and other contemporary religious phenomena.

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