If you believe in religious liberty only when it’s good for society, then you really don’t believe in it. A sincere commitment to religious liberty requires support for exemptions that allow people to do things you might disagree with, whether that’s Mennonites refusing to serve in the military, Catholics declining to work with same-sex foster parents, or Native Americans doing drugs.
So supporters of religious liberty and robust religious exemptions might feel conflicted about a court ruling in Pennsylvania that rejected religious exemptions to mask mandates in schools. On the one hand, the best information from public health experts says masks are a good, simple way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. On the other, shouldn’t we support the rights of people we think are wrong?
Religious liberty is too important to let it get misused. It’s not a waiver to avoid all inconveniences in life or, worse, a tool to make political statements. For religious liberty to survive political and legal scrutiny in the future, we must safeguard exemptions against abuse. We can’t let appeals to shared faith or shared “enemies” mask bad faith arguments that undermine our religious liberty.
At the height of World War II, West Virginia schools required students to begin their day by saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. For Jehovah’s Witnesses these requirements amounted to idolatry, violating their deeply held convictions. They refused, at significant personal cost.
Eventually, the US Supreme Court ruled that these students should not be coerced to participate, famously declaring, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
In the earliest days of the pandemic, state and local governments scrambled to find ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 and limit its impact on society. They enacted various regulations, including mask mandates and limitations on group gatherings. These usually applied to both public and private spaces, including government buildings, concert halls, businesses, and, yes, churches.
Some of these rules violated constitutional protections of religious liberty because they were not applied consistently across different contexts. Officials in the nation’s capital ignored limits on outdoor gatherings for protests but not for church services, and Nevada’s policies treated churches and casinos markedly differently in setting indoor attendance limits.
In these instances, some churches pushed back—and rightly so. They took their cases to court and won. But they were not asking for a special accommodation because the public health mandates were inconvenient. They demanded the policies be consistently applied.
Other objections, however, had the effect of seeking exemptions from generally applicable policies, where the government had a “compelling interest” in mandating safety measures.
In Colorado, Resurrection Christian School said it would not abide by local health ordinances mandating mask wearing and social distancing in the midst of ongoing outbreaks. And in Pennsylvania, a group of Christian parents with children enrolled in a public school said covering their children’s faces was a violation of their deeply held convictions.
There are problems with these claims, though. Resurrection Christian required students to wear masks last year in accordance with health rules. It was only over the summer that it changed course and adopted an opposing position, citing deference to parental authority. Likewise, the Pennsylvania court pointed out that parents had no objection to their children wearing masks when participating in sports and other activities. Halloween masks are fine, apparently, while masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are not.
As the Pennsylvania court found, that’s a little hard to believe.
Being fed up with government policies, while certainly common, is not the same thing as sincere religious opposition. It’s not too much to ask for consistency. Those who want exemptions to do things that the majority of the country think are bad need to be able to demonstrate their sincerity.
Consider Christians claiming their faith should exempt them from new government mandates requiring vaccines for everything from eating in restaurants to working in certain industries. These requests can be difficult to assess. But one thing we can ask is whether people have been consistent. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile cases of people receiving other vaccines or taking common medicines who then argue the COVID-19 vaccine poses an unacceptable burden on their religious convictions.
In Vermont, children are required to get vaccines before they attend public school. Before 2016, just one out of every 200 kindergartners received a religious exemption. That year, the state decided that exemptions for personal, nonreligious reasons would no longer be allowed. Then one out of every 25 students’ parents claimed a religious objection to vaccinations.
It’s possible that Vermonters suddenly found religion, but the more likely explanation is that some parents’ religious opposition to vaccines was not entirely sincere. There’s no way to know what role Christians played in this instance, of course. Nevertheless, we must guard against the temptation to use our faith as a kind of hall pass to avoid the burdens of dealing with new and emerging cultural challenges.
Religious exemptions are important—to the United States and to Christians who believe that their faith will sometimes put them at odds with the dominant culture and require them to do things that the rest of society thinks are bad. If we want to preserve that right, we need to be careful not to claim exemptions whenever we don’t like a new rule.
This does not mean never claiming religious exemptions. It means that we should do so only after necessary prayer and discernment, not out of fear or a knee-jerk reaction to “own” our opponents.
As the first freedom listed in the First Amendment, religion is a privileged concept in America. Government must tread carefully when its actions burden people’s sincerely held beliefs. At the same time, Christians should be judicious about claiming religious exemptions to generally applicable rules. Romans 13:1 tells Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities,” and 1 Peter commands, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (2:13). And while this does not require blind obedience in the face of clear injustices, it’s surely not license to make an exception for ourselves every time we disagree with something the government does.
How Christians claim religious liberty will matter in the years ahead. We may find that we need more exemptions than we used to, as the country goes through a major shift in religious culture and demographics. The “rise of the nones” is well documented, as is the declining share of Americans who identify as Christians. For exemption claims to be seen as legitimate in the future, we must be consistent and honest when we make them today.
Daniel Bennett is associate professor of political science at John Brown University, where he is assistant director of the Center for Faith and Flourishing. He also serves as president of Christians in Political Science.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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