Tag Archives: Claims of Conscience

Beschle on a Broad Free Exercise and a Narrow Definition of Religion

Donald L. Beschle  (John Marshall Law School) has posted Does a Broad Free Exercise Right Require a Narrow Definition of “Religion”? The introduction follows.

In the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith, a sharply divided Supreme Court abandoned the routine application of strict scrutiny when considering Free Exercise Clause claims seeking exemption from generally applicable legal duties or prohibitions. The Court returned to an older view of the Free Exercise Clause as protecting believers only from government acts that were aimed specifically at beliefs, and that grew out of hostility to the religion rather than a desire to further legitimate secular goals.

Reaction to Smith was largely negative, and legislative and state court responses followed, seeking to restore strict scrutiny as the appropriate standard when a free exercise exemption was denied. Smith was seen as an unfortunate decision reflecting insensitivity to the significance of the free exercise right. This article explores the possibility that Smith may have been less the result of that insensitivity than it was a response to the vast expansion of the concept of religion in constitutional law since the Court’s first free exercise decisions employing strict scrutiny. This expansion made the application of strict scrutiny, at least as it is normally understood, wildly impractical.

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Sepper on Taking Conscience Seriously

Elizabeth Sepper (Washington U. School of Law) has posted Taking Conscience Seriously. The abstract follows.

For too long, the conventional account of morality in medicine has placed conscience firmly on one side of the moral divide. The archetypal doctor who refuses to participate in controversial treatments—most commonly end-of-life care, abortion, sterilization, and contraception—has been the lodestar of legislative efforts and scholarly accounts. In the name of institutional conscience, healthcare facilities have also been permitted to assert moral or religious objections to care and impose them on employees and affiliates of all beliefs and backgrounds. Doctors, nurses, and institutions that are willing to deliver controversial care have been virtually absent from discussions.

This Article aims to reframe the debate by taking conscience seriously. Through engagement with the moral philosophical literature, it makes two inter-related arguments. First, conscience equally may compel a doctor or nurse to deliver a controversial treatment to a patient in need. Yet legislation meant to protect conscience, paradoxically, has undermined the consciences of these doctors and nurses. Second, endowing healthcare institutions with conscience via legislation is theoretically and practically problematic. By privileging the institutions’ rights to refuse to provide certain treatments, legislation impinges on the rights of individual providers to provide care they feel obligated by conscience to deliver. Ultimately, if legislation is to protect conscience, it must negotiate between competing claims of conscience of health providers and the facilities in which they work—regardless of whether they refuse or are willing to provide controversial care. This Article introduces a new framework for achieving a better balance between the interests of institutions, individual doctors and nurses, and the patients who depend on them for care.

Leiter, “Why Tolerate Religion?”

This October, Princeton University Press will publish Why Tolerate Religion? By Brian Leiter (University of Chicago Law School). The publisher’s description follows.

This provocative book addresses one of the most enduring puzzles in political philosophy and constitutional theory–why is religion singled out for preferential treatment in both law and public discourse? Why, for example, can a religious soup kitchen get an exemption from zoning laws in order to expand its facilities to better serve the needy, while a secular soup kitchen with the same goal cannot? Why is a Sikh boy permitted to wear his ceremonial dagger to school while any other boy could be expelled for packing a knife? Why are religious obligations that conflict with the law accorded special toleration while other obligations of conscience are not?

In Why Tolerate Religion?, Brian Leiter argues that the reasons have nothing to do with religion, and that Western democracies are wrong to single out religious liberty for special legal protections. He offers new insights into what makes a claim of conscience distinctively “religious,” and draws on a wealth of examples from America, Europe, and elsewhere to highlight the important issues at stake. With philosophical acuity, legal insight, and wry humor, Leiter shows why our reasons for tolerating religion are not specific to religion but apply to all claims of conscience, and why a government committed to liberty of conscience is not required by the principle of toleration to grant exemptions to laws that promote the general welfare.