Martinez-Torron on Religious Exemptions

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference with LUMSA University 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 Javier Martínez-Torrón (Complutense) submitted the following paper for Workshop 2, on religious exemptions, which we are delighted to publish here:

The following ideas are not an attempt to cover the entirety and complexity of the issues raised by the claims for the so-called religious exemptions. They just try to emphasize some aspects that are often, in my opinion, not sufficiently considered in legal debates.

1. Taking the right approach

The very title of this session—Religious Exemptions—may be misleading. It obviously refers to situations where there is a conflict between conscience and law, that is, between moral obligations (not necessarily rooted in a religious conscience) and legal obligations. For the purpose of these brief reflections, I will refer to exemptions on moral grounds rather than to religious exemptions, considering that objections on religious and objections on other ethical grounds must be treated equally. In Europe, this type of conflict is often addressed under the term “conscientious objections.”

From my perspective, it is a mistake to analyze these conflicts from the perspective of legal exemptions, emphasizing that some people seek to be exempted from complying with the law on moral grounds (often deriving from religious beliefs). The term “exemption” suggests the existence of a privilege or an anomaly. And I profoundly disagree with the view that conscientious objectors are a “human anomaly” or seek privileged treatment. Such conflicts usually involve people with moral positions different from the majority. To consider that people in a religious/ethical minority are “anomalous” implies a prejudice incompatible with the contemporary notion of fundamental rights. And, certainly, we would not depart from that premise if we were dealing with other characteristics that define people’s identity and way of living, such as sexual orientation, ethnic origin, or physical deficiencies. Just the opposite, we assume that it is important to organize society, and the legal system, in a way that takes such characteristics into account so that those persons are not excluded or treated as second-class—“anomalous”—citizens.

In this regard, it is important to bear in mind two things. First, freedom of religion or belief is part of the applicable law in most countries. It is recognized and protected by international instruments as well as by most national constitutions, with one or other terminology. Such freedom entails not only the right to choose one’s beliefs but also the right to behave in accordance with them; that is, freedom of conscience, the right to act following the supreme rules dictated by one’s moral conscience.

Read more

A New Book on Locke

Few, if any, philosophers have had the impact on American constitutional law that John Locke has had. This is especially true with respect to the Religion Clauses. Lockean ideas about the proper separation of church and state, filtered through the early Virginia experience and the writings of Madison and Jefferson, are so familiar to us today that it takes real effort to examine them objectively. A new book from the University of Chicago Press, America’s Philosopher: John Locke, by historian Claire Rydell Arcenas (University of Montana) suggests that throughout history Americans have appropriated Locke for their own ends. Looks very interesting. The publisher’s description follows:

America’s Philosopher examines how John Locke has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted over three centuries of American history.

The influence of polymath philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) can still be found in a dizzying range of fields, as his writings touch on issues of identity, republicanism, and the nature of knowledge itself. Claire Rydell Arcenas’s new book tells the story of Americans’ longstanding yet ever-mutable obsession with this English thinker’s ideas, a saga whose most recent manifestations have found the so-called Father of Liberalism held up as a right-wing icon.

The first book to detail Locke’s trans-Atlantic influence from the eighteenth century until today, America’s Philosopher shows how and why interpretations of his ideas have captivated Americans in ways few other philosophers—from any nation—ever have. As Arcenas makes clear, each generation has essentially remade Locke in its own image, taking inspiration and transmuting his ideas to suit the needs of the particular historical moment. Drawing from a host of vernacular sources to illuminate Locke’s often contradictory impact on American daily and intellectual life from before the Revolutionary War to the present, Arcenas delivers a pathbreaking work in the history of ideas.