Religion, Toleration

Religious Exemptions Volume

For people interested in the normative dimensions of religious exemptions, Michael Weber and I have just published a new anthology of articles with Oxford University Press. We’re very happy with the volume, and we have a number of top-notch philosophers and legal theorists writing on these important topics. Another attractive feature of the book is that it engages the question of when religious exemptions are justified, and not just when they are constitutional.

You can buy the book here. If you would like a review copy, please email me privately at kevinvallier-at-gmail-dot-com.

Here’s the jacket description.

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.

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Author: Kevin Vallier
  • geoih

    If a religious exemption is probable, then it’s a pretty good indication that thing shouldn’t be a law. You’re probably legislating culture.

    • Salem

      I can’t agree. A rule is (in some sense) appropriate if its benefits outweigh its costs. But the costs of different rules bear differently on different groups, with religious belief a major part of that.

      For instance, one might argue that the rule that motorcyclists must wear helmet puts a small cost on the rider in choice of apparel, in exchange for a much greater gain in safety. Now, I don’t like such rules, because I feel they are busy-bodyish, but the annoyance to me is nevertheless minor. However, the cost to a Sikh is much greater, because it involves violating a command of his religion. Hence, it may well be that (in some sense) the best rule is that we all have to wear cycle helmets, but Sikhs get some special accommodation.

      And we see this pattern again and again, not just in cycle helmets, but in identification procedures at court, in swearing oaths, in prison dress requirements, etc etc. None of these have anything to do with legislating culture.

      And again, there are two ways of providing such accommodations. One would be for the law-makers to provide them ahead of time – for example, the US constitution allows Presidents to affirm, rather than swear, oaths of office, as an accommodation to Quakers. But another option would be for the law-making body to delegate the decision as to when accommodations are appropriate – for example, the US RFRA, or the UK HRA. One major advantage of the latter is the Hayekian point that lawmakers cannot be expected to know in advance all the costs their rules will impose on different groups.

      In my mind, religious exemptions are a natural part of a classical liberal society where laws tread lightly on its citizens.

      • King Goat

        Let’s say the polity promises that those injured in auto accidents are covered by a government program. What would you think of stipulating that a Sikh getting a religious exemption from helmet laws that is injured in a motorcycle accident must cover a greater portion of his injury costs?

      • geoih

        Who decides what is a benefit and what is a cost, and whether one outweighs the other? Value is subjective. There is no objective measure. You state that the costs and benefits should be considered, then go on to cite Hayek and say there’s no way to know in advance the costs.

        • CJColucci

          Who decides anything is determined by the community’s basic political structure. In the United States, it is federal, state, and local legislatures, subject to judicial review. But you probably know that. If your question is, why should anyone else other than me decide, that’s a whole different issue, rather larger than the one raised here and unlikely to be profitably debated in that context.

          • geoih

            No, my question is why do you, or anybody else, accept that federal, state or local political power has legitimate, ethical or moral authority to make decrees on these individualist topics. If your acceptance is strictly pragmatic based on history and the present situation, then your it’s little more than ‘might makes right’, and has little to do with philosophy. My position is that there should be limits on what any ethical political power should do, and the fact that such political power has to design exemptions into legislation for religion is good evidence that these limits exist, in which case such political power should not be involved in the first place.

          • CJColucci

            Except for your somewhat more hifalutin’ language, I don’t see any difference between what you are saying and what I said. Whether people think it useful to accept your invitation to hash out this issue in this forum remains to be seen.

          • Farstrider


    • Farstrider

      Why is legislating culture a bad thing? A prohibition on domestic violence is legislating culture, but I hope we all agree it is a good prohibition.

      • murali284

        Because its not merely legislating culture. Presumably we could justify the prohibition to everyone. i.e. there is some valid argument from premises they accept to the conclusion that its okay to prohibit domestic violence.

        • Farstrider

          But that can be true of any law that supposedly violates someone’s religion.

          • murali284

            Wait What? There is some way to justify to Muslims a prohibition on the sale of halaal meat, minarets or burkinis?

          • Farstrider

            There could be, if the law was based on something other than hostility to religion, like if it turns out that the halaal meat is unsafe, or the minarets are structurally unsound, or what not.

  • ThaomasH

    Different kinds and degrees of religious exemption to laws would depend on the law. The motorcycle helmet law in involves weighing the benefits to the rider with the costs and deciding that the cost to the Sikh rider are great enough to exempt them. Exemption from vaccination is another matter as the vaccinated person also imposes an externality on others. There would appear to grant a “religious” exemption more than for a personal philosophy exception and none at all for holding a mistaken empirical belief that vaccines are harmful. The baker/same sex marriage client issue is different still. The harm to same sex couples would occur if there were systematic discrimination against them (which is presumably the law seeks to prevent), but little from small scale/idiosyncratic prejudice or hostility, so a religious/personal preference exemption could be made for the individual or single proprietor bakery to exercise their prejudice. [Yes I think the same argument would justify the same kind of limited exemption from other civil rights laws.]