Are they justified?
Thanks to religious exemption laws, individuals and organizations can seek exemptions from certain laws. Broadly speaking, an exemption may be granted if two conditions are met:
- Such individuals or organizations must show that a law imposes too heavy a burden on the observance of their sincerely held religious beliefs.
- The exemption must not compromise a compelling government interest.
The justification for this practice is derived from the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
However, the amendment’s first provision (known as the Establishment Clause) stipulates government neutrality toward religion. Thus, there is a tension between the two provisions. And it’s apparent that, as a result of religious exemptions, the second provision (known as the Free Exercise Clause) is being favored to the detriment of the first.
Further, given that the U.S. Constitution is a secular document, it’s rather peculiar that religious exemptions are allegedly supported by it. Particularly, that exemptions are granted solely based on religious beliefs. And it doesn’t matter in the least whether such beliefs are reasonable. To qualify, they simply have to be “sincerely held”. In contrast, a sincerely held secular belief, a belief arrived at not through mysticism or received dogma but from a careful evaluation of different ethical considerations, for example, will be rejected— faith is given preeminence over reason and argument.
To address the problematic preferential treatment currently given to religion, and, thereby, the risk of neglecting the Establishment Clause (religious neutrality), a possible solution could be to expand religious exemptions laws to include any sincerely held belief. Adding nonreligious exemptions, however, might prompt a whole host of new petitions (some possibly frivolous), which might inordinately burden legislators and judges. On the upside, a potential avalanche of cases might discourage legislators from passing laws for which there are no compelling government interests to begin with.
At any rate, why grant exemptions at all, instead of just repealing the laws that are being challenged? No exemptions are granted today from laws that represent compelling government interests. It follows that if it’s determined that an exemption should be granted from a given law, this is incontrovertible evidence that the law in question does not legitimately serve a compelling government interest. It should therefore be repealed.
Alternatively, a more pragmatic approach could simply be that no exemptions of any sort should ever be considered. At least that would guarantee neutrality with respect to religion, per the Establishment Clause, without really violating the Free Exercise Clause.