Do Religions Deserve Special Status?

Week of: 
December 15, 2013
What is it: 

In most Western democracies, religions are exempt from certain rules and regulations that most other organizations have to follow. For example, in the US, religious organizations are not required to pay taxes or follow non-discrimination employment laws. Some faithful go so far as to argue that their religious freedom means they shouldn’t have to provide birth control to their employees. But does religion truly deserve this preferential treatment? Should the demands for legal exemption based on religious freedom be treated any differently than those based on moral conscience? What special status, if any, should religion have in the eyes of the law? John and Ken grant guest status to Brian Leiter from the University of Chicago, author of Why Tolerate Religion?

Listening Notes: 

According to the First Amendment, religions do indeed deserve special status. It forbids the establishment of an official state religion and it guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion. But, Ken says, the First Amendment doesn’t just protect religious rights; it also says you can believe and say pretty much whatever you want. But, clarifies John, the amendment distinguishes expression from practice; it does not protect all forms of practice equally. Secular practices don’t enjoy the same protections. Religion has extreme power in this country – religions own companies, religious people can protest in squares, they demand First Amendment accommodation. The law contorts itself in the name of accommodating religion, believes John. Ken thinks it’s a matter of respect. John wonders why, say, wearing a fedora in class does not have the same protections as wearing a burka. Ken admits that religion is a special case. John says that religion is based on blind faith, whereas other decisions are at least philosophical to some extent, so it should be the other way around in terms of protections!   

John and Ken welcome guest Brian Leiter from the University of Chicago, author of Why Tolerate Religions? John asks Brian what motivated him to write this particular book. Brian explains that his interest in the topic started when he was living in Texas, where conservative Christian groups became very aggressive about trying to dictate school curriculums. This got him thinking about the role of religion in society and the law’s approach to religion and religious practices. The First Amendment certainly protects religion to a great extent, and there is a historical reason for that. But is there a good moral reason for why we should put up with religious practices that we disagree with? There are two arguments Brian frequently hears. First, if there are religious truths, then we need to have free exercise of religion in order to gain access to them. Then, religion also provides a unique social good in terms of making civil society possible, providing stability, and making people law-abiding. But religion does not always accomplish this.

Ken believes that Republicanism is false, than Satan worship is false…why should he tolerate any of this false stuff? Brian tells Ken that he, as an individual, can be intolerant to whatever he chooses. The real question is what stance the state adopts regarding these matters. We cannot expect the state to be intolerant because we wish it to be. So, asks Ken, does the state have to be neutral between truth and falsity? The state is not always neutral, it cannot be, explains Brian. It has to make decisions such as, for example, what schoolchildren learn. John says this also applies to matters of public health, such as vaccination. Ken asks: what is the philosophical basis for saying tolerance is a good thing, and is there anything special about religion that would make it deserve a unique sort of tolerance? This is the overarching topic of discussion as Brian, John, and Ken welcome questions from the audience.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:20): Caitlin Esch chats about religion with Paul Lichterman, Professor of Sociology and Religion at University of Southern California, about religious sacrifices with Charles Guelperin, a Santeria Priest in Los Angeles, and about Santeria with Juan Martinez, Vice Provost of the Fuller Theological Seminary.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:51): Ian Shoales grants special status to atheism and pastafarianism as a religion.

Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director, Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values, University of Chicago

Related Resources: 

Web Resources

McConnell, Michael. “The Substitution of ‘Free Exercise of Religion’ for the ‘Rights of Conscience.’”

McConnell, Michael. “Accommodation of Religion.”

Bedi, Sonu. “Debate: What is so special about Religion? The dilemmas of the Religious Exemption.”


Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration.

Researched By: 
Nabila Abdallah

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