Barclay on Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Stephanie Barclay (Notre Dame) submitted the following paper for Workshop 2, on religious exemptions, which we are delighted to publish here:

One enduring question of liberal democracies is how to reconcile the tension between claims to authority by the rulers and claims to liberty by the governed. [1] Debates about the validity of religious exemptions often play out as a microcosm of this larger discussion. Some, such as the late Justice Antonin Scalia, have argued that a country would be “courting anarchy” if it too generously provided exemptions to legal rules based on religious objections.[2] At the other end of the spectrum, the United States Supreme Court has also recognized that “[t]hose who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”[3] I have argued elsewhere that a legal regime which never provides religious exemptions is primed to increase human suffering and decrease human dignity by penalizing (or making impossible) actions individuals feel they must (or must not) take to comply with higher divine mandates.[4]

One standard answer to the broader dilemma of reconciling authority and liberty is what some scholars term the consent proposition,[5] also reflected in social contract theory that pervades thinking by luminaries such as Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Rawls. This proposition is embodied in the American Declaration of Independence as a “self-evident truth”—that “Governments . . . deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” On this account, consent is often emphasized as the sole source of political legitimacy of a legal regime.  Steven Smith has surveyed problems with the consent proposition as an unpersuasive fiction if we are looking for consent on the level of an autonomous individual born into a legal community.[6] But that might be looking to the wrong unit of the populace (just one lone individual) to give consent. As Richard Ekins has explained in his work on joint action theory, groups can act in purposeful ways where a body like “the people” can consent to certain frameworks—like a constitution—for self-governance. To be a free people, the people in the singular is the ruler and agent, and the people in the plural are the ruled and the principals.[7] And for the consent of the group action to be legitimate, the people must have meaningful opportunities to change the legal rules they’ve put in place in the future.

Assuming consent by the people can resolve the tension between authority and liberty generally, how can religious exemptions be provided in a way that is consistent with this type of self-governance? One obvious answer is the use of legislative religious exemptions. Through this method, the people can act jointly in a deliberative manner to protect space for religious exercise where frequent conflicts (and often high-stakes conflicts) can arise between authority and the liberty of a religious objector. In Early American history, the United States offered exemptions from the draft to Quakers who objected on religious grounds to military service.[8] Religious exemptions can be offered in more mundane contexts, like tax exemptions for churches, when the people may judge that excluding some religious institutions from some obligations provides relevant goods to society in other important ways.

While critically important, legislative religious exemptions present some shortcomings. One is that they are usually more attuned to the needs of majoritarian religious groups (or at least large and well-known religious groups) than minority religious groups. For the conflict between authority and religious liberty to have been significant enough to have garnered legislative attention, it’s reasonable to assume that those sorts of conflicts are most obvious when a significant portion of the population shares the belief that gave rise to that conflict. For example, many prisons recognize religious exemptions for kosher dietary requirements. But few recognize exemptions for a Kemetic diet required by adherents of Shetaut Neter.[9] A second limitation is that some types of religious objections result from unexpected applications of a law. These conflicts are thus unlikely to involve a legislative compromise in advance that includes a religious exemption. Third, many government policies are promulgated by agencies, rather than legislatures. Scholars like Philip Hamburger have noted that these less politically accountable institutions are often less sympathetic to the need to craft religious exemptions that would apply to new policies.[10]

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Obedience and Freedom

It’s probably fair to say that most people today regard obedience and freedom as antonyms, and that obedience is regarded as the bad side of that duality. We might even say that we are free just insofar as we obey no one, except perhaps ourselves or our own will. Going further, obedience seems like the kind of orientation to the world that depends upon there being unquestionably rightful authority, but perhaps we don’t regard authority, any authority, in that way any longer–as having unquestionably right claims on us. Sometimes obedience is thought to be a kind of mindless servility or rote submission, though older conceptions of obedience incorporated an important element of free choice. Is it then not obedience if one chooses to submit oneself to the authority whom one obeys? Again, that position would assume that choice and obedience are necessarily antagonists, but the structures of authority to which one might voluntarily submit oneself might actually make one more free to achieve certain objectives than one would be without the submission (think here of the structures of excellence in sports or writing or some other practice).

Ok, enough already. I raise all this in light of an interesting new book by Jacob Phillips, Obedience is Freedom (Polity Press). The abstract is below, and here is an interesting review of the book that came out a few months back.

The virtue of obedience is seen as outdated today, if not downright toxic – and yet, are we any freer than our forebears?

In this provocative work, Jacob Phillips argues not. Many feel unable to speak freely, their opinions policed by the implicit or explicit threat of coercion. Impending ecological disaster is the ultimate threat to our freedoms and wellbeing, and living in a disenchanted cosmos leaves people enslaved to nihilistic whim. Phillips shows that the antiquated notion of obedience to the moral law contains forgotten dimensions, which can be a source of freedom from these contemporary fetters. These dimensions of obedience – such as loyalty, discipline and order – protect people from falling prey to the subtle forms of coercion, control and domination of twenty-first-century life.

Fusing literary insight with philosophical discussion and cultural critique, Phillips demonstrates that in obedience lies the path to true freedom.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In Yeshiva University v. YU Pride Alliance, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor stayed a New York trial court’s injunction that required Yeshiva University to officially recognize as a student organization an LGBTQ group, YU Pride Alliance. For further details, please see last week’s posting here
  • In Chabad Chayil, Inc. v. School Board of Miami-Dade County, Florida, the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of free exercise, equal protection, and due process claims brought by a Jewish organization that ran an after-school Hebrew program for more than ten years using public school classrooms. In dismissing the claims, the district court held that plaintiff had not shown the elements necessary to assert liability against either the school board or the Inspector General’s office that investigated complaints against Chabad. 
  • In Chabad Lubavitch of the Beaches, Inc. v. Incorporated Village of Atlantic Beach, a New York federal district court granted a preliminary injunction, concluding that an attempt to acquire the property of a Jewish religious group by eminent domain likely violated the group’s First Amendment free exercise rights. Eminent domain proceedings were initiated shortly after Chabad held a Menorah lighting ceremony on the property. 
  • In Chaaban v. City of Detroit, Michigan Department of Corrections, a Michigan federal district court denied a motion in a RLUIPA case for reconsideration of the denial of qualified immunity to corrections officers who forced a Muslim woman to remove her hijab for a booking photograph. 
  • In Braidwood Management Inc. v. Becerra, a Texas federal district court held that the ACA mandate for health insurance coverage of PrEP drugs violates the rights, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, of a for-profit corporation whose owner believes that providing such coverage for his employees would make him complicit in their same-sex conduct and sexual activity outside of marriage. 
  • In Christian Medical & Dental Association v. Bonta, a California federal district court held a provision in the California End of Life Option Act likely unconstitutional. The provision requires doctors (who refuse on conscience, moral or ethical grounds to participate in procedures set out by the act) to document in a patient’s record the date of the patient’s request for an aid-in-dying drug. This notation serves as one of two required requests by a patient before the patient may obtain the drug. The court rejected the argument that this violates the free exercise rights of medical providers who object on religious grounds and dismissed both equal protection and due process challenges. However, the court did conclude that plaintiffs are likely to succeed in their free speech challenges to the requirement. The court issued a preliminary injunction barring state enforcement of the requirement against objecting health care providers.