The Slippery Slope of Religious Exemptions

First published at on November 22, 2009

This morning, I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I wasn’t sick; just tired. But I had a full workday scheduled.

Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared unto me and said, “Behold, today is a sacred day, and you must not work.” Sweet!

Okay, maybe I was dreaming. But as the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out, there’s no useful distinction between “I dreamed that God appeared to me” and “God appeared to me in a dream”—and if the latter is good enough for Biblical prophets, it’s good enough for me.

Before you render judgment, note that the angel added that my readers—this means you!—should take the day off too. Indeed, he presented me with platinum tablets (gold is so old-school) commanding that the day on which this column appears is sacred and must be honored with a Sabbath.

I’ve since lost the tablets, but trust me: that’s what they said.

Now, suppose you believe all of this, and suppose you phone your employer and tell him that you’re not coming in. He might try to fire you. But (assuming that other employees get accommodations for religious holidays) that’s religious discrimination! Tell him so.

He might counter that Corvinianism, as my followers like to call it, is not a valid religion. But why not? Because it’s new? All religions were new at one point. Mormonism is less than two centuries old. I have knickknacks that are older than that.

Moreover, if religious accommodation should vary according to the age of the religion, then many forms of paganism should get more deference than Christianity. Forget Christmas break. I want the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. (Oh wait—they’re the same. Bad example.)

I’m joking here to make a serious point: religious accommodation is a slippery part of the law. And those who cite it in the gay-rights debate need to start acknowledging that.

Let me be clear: I believe that a free society should make broad accommodation for religious practice. And religious practice is largely based on “faith,” which includes revelation—in other words, doctrines that cannot be defended by reason alone. Here in the United States, we allow people to preach and worship as they see fit (or not at all), and we are better for it.

But the gay-rights debate concerning religious accommodation is not about worship. No serious participant argues that the government should force religions to perform gay weddings (or ordinations or baptisms or other religious functions) against their will. That would violate the First Amendment, and beyond that, it would be foolish and wrong.

Rather, the debate is about the not-strictly-religious things that religious organizations often do: renting out banquet space, for example, or hiring employees for secular tasks. It’s also about religious individuals who for reasons of conscience wish to discriminate in secular settings.

To use a concrete example: should a Massachusetts Catholic court clerk who objects to same-sex marriage be allowed not to process a marriage license for a gay couple (perhaps passing the couple along to another clerk who will do the job)?

There are at least two slippery-slopes to worry about when answering this question. First, if we make accommodations for, say, Catholicism, must we make accommodations for any religion? Some religions are pretty screwy (although I think Corvinianism is pretty cool).

And what about atheists? Why should conscience exemptions only apply to the religious?

Second, if we make accommodation for objections to same-sex marriage, why not other religious and moral convictions? Suppose the clerk’s religion prohibits divorce and re-marriage, or interfaith marriage, or marriages not performed by the One True Church. Should she be allowed to decline to issue licenses in those cases as well?

I am not suggesting that these accommodations would all be equally valid. The point is, rather, that deciding which are and which aren’t is thorny legal and moral territory.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting religious inconsistency on these questions. One never hears about clerks refusing to grant marriage licenses to divorcees, despite the Bible’s clear condemnation of divorce—the same Bible frequently cited in the gay-rights debate.

Which makes it difficult to shake the suspicion that, for some of these people—not all, but some—what’s cast as a “principled religious objection” boils down to simple gut feeling.

Kind of like my not wanting to go to work this morning.