Religious Freedom: A Genuinely Fair Approach

In his lead essay, Kevin Vallier identifies what he sees as four approaches to religion in politics. Although these categorizations are helpful, they are also flawed. Indeed, none of these categories describe the approach I take on such matters. The secular progressive approach, for example, discounts people of faith to an extent that I—and I believe my colleagues, and most “intellectuals and theorists”—do not. Nor is it fair to claim that those who adhere to this approach are secular establishmentarians “in denial.”

I also reject the classical liberal approach, which Valier adopts, as it fails to account for the harm that extensive religious exemptions have on others. In many respects, it allows religion to serve as a trump card to the law.

A Fifth Approach

I do embrace equality and state neutrality when it comes to religion. The government should not promote or disparage religion, coerce anyone into participating in religious exercise, or create the impression that adhering to any particular religion, or religion in general, will improve a person’s standing in the eyes of the government.

My approach differs from what the author labels the “secular progressive approach,” however, in that it does not oppose religious influences in politics or exclude people of faith. To the contrary, I work each and every day with a broad array of religious organizations and individuals. While some of these allies argue our shared positions from secular viewpoints, others come to the table with religious motivations and speak to how their religion informs their policy positions. This approach neither “marginalizes” nor “impl[ies] that deeply religious citizens have less civic virtue than secular citizens.”  Instead it invites people of faith and non-theists to the table on equal footing.

Of course, the influence religion should have on public policy is not without limit. The government should not pass laws that are justified by religion but that lack legitimate secular justifications as well. It should never impose religious doctrine or tests on its citizens: individuals and organizations should not have to regulate their behavior to appease the will of a powerful religious majority. Indeed, this principle is similar to that set out in the classical liberal approach: “laws are justified when multiple reasonable points of view find them acceptable, … including but not limited to religious reasons” but “religious reasons will seldom be sufficient to justify laws or policies by themselves.”

Likewise, the government should not issue blanket exemptions from the law to anyone who invokes religion. The government must respect people of faith and should adopt laws and policies that avoid burdening religion when possible, but special exemptions should be granted only where they would relieve a truly substantial religious burden and would not harm or deny rights to others. These critical factors are wholly overlooked in the author’s chosen approach.

Same-Sex Marriage

There are no legitimate or compelling secular justifications for barring same sex marriage. The only arguments against marriage equality are found in the doctrine of some, although surely not all, religions. Accordingly, “traditional marriage laws” should be rejected and the rights and privileges of marriage should be extended to same-sex couples. It is here that my approach, the classical liberal approach, and the secular religious approach intersect.

The classical liberal approach, however, would call for “extensive religious exemptions” when the government recognizes same sex marriage. This approach transforms religion into a trump card and wholly ignores the harm such exemptions inflict on others. The author expresses concern that “legalizing gay marriage without religious exemptions disrespects sincere citizens of faith,” yet seems unmoved that these exemptions disrespect, demean, and deny rights to the couple.

Some people of faith may strongly disagree with extending secular benefits to same-sex couples, but that is not tantamount to suffering a significant religious burden. In addition, these individuals and organizations do not seek just to be left alone by the government; they want to deny others rights to which they are entitled. Even where the government recognizes marriage, people of faith are not required to offer these marriages the same religious benefits they would offer to same-sex couples. Houses of worship do not have to condone or perform same sex marriage ceremonies, or claim that such marriages are legitimate in the eyes of their God. A person of faith can similarly speak against these marriages and refuse them religious recognition and respect, but he or she does not have the right to deny a couple the secular benefits of marriage.

The Contraception Mandate

The Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate requires employers who choose to offer their employees health insurance to include coverage for contraception. This policy finds strong support in the medical community, many in the faith community support it, and 28 states had adopted similar policies at the time the Obama Administration adopted this rule. Accordingly, there is sufficient justification for the law—even under the classical liberal theory.

There is far less justification for expansive exemptions to this law. The regulations already fully exempt houses of worship and provide religious nonprofits a generous accommodation. Religious nonprofit organizations need not provide, pay for, or inform a woman about how to access insurance coverage for contraception. That the classical liberal theory calls for even more expansive exemptions and accommodations demonstrates why it is a flawed approach.

Once again, the current policy does not substantially burden religious individuals and organizations. Providing a comprehensive set of healthcare benefits is no different from providing a paycheck; employees may utilize both types of compensation in any manner that they wish, and the employer cannot reasonably be perceived to support or endorse any particular use.

In the case of a religious nonprofit organization the burden is even more attenuated. These groups can avoid this even tangible connection by simply submitting a signed piece of paper requesting an accommodation. Ignoring both the ease of obtaining the accommodation and that an accommodation cannot be provided if it isn’t sought, some still claim that the process to obtain the accommodation is itself a religious burden. This extreme position demonstrates that these organizations do not just want relief from providing coverage. Instead, they want to prevent women from even obtaining free insurance coverage from third parties.

Of course, denying millions of women contraception coverage causes them significant harm. Many underestimate the impact this would have on women, but the classical liberal approach fails to consider it at all.  Birth control provides many health benefits. For example, it prevents unwanted pregnancies and the negative health consequences connected to them, decreases the number of premature births by allowing women to control birth spacing, reduces risks of certain cancers, and treats menstrual disorders. All of these benefits are lost on women, however, who cannot afford birth control.

My approach would take into account the attenuated connection employers have to their employees’ use of birth control and the harm accommodations and exemptions would have on women’s healthcare. Under this approach, further exemptions and accommodations would be rejected.


None of the author’s approaches describe what I believe is the proper approach to religion in politics. Instead, a fifth approach, which may be described as a hybrid between the secular progressive and the classical liberal approach, should be adopted. Although people of faith should be welcomed into the public discussion, religion should never serve as the sole reason for adopting laws, nor should it be allowed to serve as a trump card to deny rights to or harm others.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Philosopher Kevin Vallier of Bowling Green State University suggests that libertarians need to think more carefully about the complicated territory between church and state. A propertarian approach will not suffice, he argues, and yet neither the left nor the right offers genuinely liberal solutions to the problems of religion in public life. Vallier recommends a set of principles that are at once anti-establishmentarian — there will be no official church — and yet “constructive,” in that it welcomes religious interests and even religious arguments on questions of public policy.

Response Essays

  • Patrick J. Deneen argues that the boundaries of political discourse have moved leftward. As a result, so-called religious conservatives now stand in the place that classical liberals formerly occupied: All that they want is a simple religious liberty, with an acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian character of the morals needed to sustain such liberty. Today’s so-called classical liberals have forgotten their own heritage, and they stand ready to align with secular progressives. Deneen charges that these progressives have as their object nothing less than the criminalization of Christian belief and expression. Those who value small government should therefore side with Christian conservatives.

  • Maggie Garrett takes some issue with the classification system outlined in Kevin Vallier’s lead essay; she does not recognize herself, for one, in Vallier’s portrait of secular progressives. She denies that she stands for secular establishmentarianism in particular, and she would not discount the opinions of people of faith. Yet to count as a valid reason in public policy, she believes that more is required than bare divine revelation; justifications must be given that carry the power to convince others. She would refuse the granting of religious exemptions to otherwise secular institutions, like businesses, that would deny services to same-sex couples or marriages. She defends the contraception mandate along similar lines.

  • Michael Shermer argues that science is producing better government, and that religion hasn’t been a help to it. In a liberal democracy, citizens can experiment with how they want to be governed. They can compare ideas and try out new ones. The American experiment, as it is often called, has been a success in many different ways. Meanwhile, expressions of religion in the public sphere are increasingly “obsolete.” This fact should be recognized; religion should retreat from public life just as it has from scientific inquiry, and for the same reasons.