It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when the debate about religious accommodation became the single most important topic in academic and legal debates about religious freedom, but two things are nearly certain: (1) it has now decisively displaced the issue of religious displays and religion in public as the preeminent question in the field; (2) that displacement was driven by an American political, legal, and cultural turn against traditional forms of Christianity, which in turn drove traditional Christians to seek exemptions–something that was unheard of at an earlier period when law, politics, and culture were more aligned. Once legal exemptions might be used to accommodate those sorts of believers, exemptions became more controversial than ever before.
Here is a new collection whose essays explore the exemption question from a philosophical point of view: Religious Exemptions (OUP), edited by Kevin Vallier and Michael Weber.
Exemptions from legal requirements, especially religious exemptions, have been a major topic of political debate in recent years. For example, bakers in various states have sought the right to refuse to make wedding cakes for gay and lesbian couples, despite the Supreme Court’s validation of same-sex marriage. Many parents are granted exemptions from vaccinating their children, despite public health laws requiring otherwise. Various religious organizations as well as some corporations have sought an exemption from the requirement to provide contraceptive coverage in employee healthcare plans, as required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Religious exemptions have a long history in the United States, but they remain controversial. Exemptions release some people from following laws that everyone else must follow, raising questions of fairness, and exemptions often privilege religious belief, raising concerns about equal treatment. At the same time there are good reasons to support exemptions, such as respect for the right of religious freedom and preventing religious organizations from becoming too closely intertwined with government.
The essays in this volume represent valuable contributions to the complex debate about exemptions from legal requirements. In particular, they contribute to the moral dimensions of religious exemptions. These essays go beyond legal analysis about which exemptions are constitutionally appropriate, and ask instead when religious exemptions are morally required or morally prohibited.