Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Religion doesn't exist, so we must protect it

Andrew Koppelman

American law has long accorded religion special treatment. Quaker and Mennonite objections to military service have been accommodated since colonial times. Sacramental wine was permitted during Prohibition. Today the Catholic Church is allowed to deny ordination to women despite antidiscrimination laws. Jewish and Muslim prisoners are entitled to Kosher or halal food. 

This tradition has become intensely controversial of late, reflecting a growing scholarly consensus that special treatment of religion cannot be justified. While some scholars would rule out all legal accommodation, the more common view would allow it in certain cases, but under another description. It is morally arbitrary to single out “religion,” the argument goes, and so a different legal category, such as “conscience,” should be used. A second and related objection is that the bounds of “religion” are so indeterminate that the term is meaningless—a term that European colonizers, for instance, used willy-nilly to describe whatever local practices somehow reminded them of Christianity.

The singling out of religion for special legal treatment is nonetheless appropriate, and precisely because religion doesn’t correspond to any narrow category of morally salient thought or conduct; as such it is a concept flexible enough to be accommodated legally while keeping the state neutral about theological questions. Other, more specific categories are either too sectarian to be politically usable, too underinclusive, or too vague to be administrable.

I develop these claims in the new issue of Commonweal magazine, here.

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