When Religion And Law Conflict

— by Prof. Alan Garfield

What should happen when a law conflicts with someone’s religious practice? Should the person be exempted from the law? Or should the person have to obey the law like everyone else?

That’s the issue that was raised by Catholic employers who said they could not abide the Obama administration’s mandate, that employer health care plans cover contraceptive services. These employers said they wanted to provide their employees with health insurance — their religion just forbade them from funding birth control.

More after the jump.
The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause seems to provide a ready answer to this dilemma. It says that Congress shall make “no law” prohibiting the free exercise of religion. So doesn’t that mean the Catholic employers are entitled to an exemption?

Perhaps. But the Supreme Court has never interpreted the Free Exercise Clause so literally. After all, what if a sect’s religious practice involved human sacrifice, or marrying off 12 year old girls, or using psychedelics? Surely, we would not want to exempt these practices from laws that forbid murder, child abuse, or illegal drug use.

But what about a law that interferes with a more innocuous religious practice? For example, what if there had been no legislative exemption during Prohibition for the use of wine for sacramental purposes? Should the courts have said the Free Exercise Clause commanded an exemption?

Maybe the solution is for judges to weigh the competing religious and governmental interests in each case. On one side of the scale, judges could consider the burden a law imposes upon someone’s religious practice. On the other side, judges could consider the strength of a government’s policy.

So, for instance, a judge could easily conclude that the government’s interest in preventing murder is sufficiently strong to trump a religious adherent’s interest in conducting human sacrifice. And, conversely, a judge could conclude that the interest in prohibiting alcohol consumption would not be undermined by a limited exemption for sacramental use.

That sounds easy enough, and in fact it mirrors the approach the Supreme Court used for many years in applying the Free Exercise Clause. But in 1990, the Supreme Court reversed course and said it was getting out of the business of trying to balance religious interests against governmental policies.

Justice Antonin Scalia explained that balancing these competing interests was an impossible task. How, for instance, could a judge second-guess a religious believer’s assertion that particular conduct was vitally important to his faith? And how, except in obvious cases like human sacrifice, could a judge determine whether the “apple” of governmental policy outweighs the “orange” of a religious believer’s faith?

Scalia declared that the Free Exercise Clause requires no exemptions from “neutral laws” that apply to everyone. Indeed, he warned that if it did permit exemptions, it would allow every religion to “be a law onto itself.” Given the vast diversity of religious beliefs in the United States, it would open the door to challenges to a myriad of civic obligations: compulsory military service, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, compulsory vaccination laws, and drug laws.

If a religious group wants an exemption, Scalia said, it should go to its legislators and ask for one. But the Constitution does not mandate an exemption.

Many religious and civil liberties groups were aghast at Scalia’s decision and successfully lobbied Congress to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA, which currently applies to federal laws burdening religion, requires courts to return to the old regimen of weighing religious burdens against government interests.

So which approach makes more sense: Scalia’s approach or the old regimen restored by RFRA? Let’s try doing the RFRA balancing approach in the contraceptive mandate case.

How much does it burden the religious principles of a Catholic university or hospital if its employee health insurance has to cover contraceptives? (Focus on the religious burden and not the economic one because policies covering contraceptives may not be more expensive since unintended pregnancy costs are avoided.)

And how important is the government’s interest in making sure that the women employees of these institutions have access to contraceptives? Consider that many of these employees are not Catholic or are Catholics who want to use contraceptives, and that women have much higher health care costs than men when contraceptives are not insured.

How should the balance come out?

Alan Garfield is a professor at the Widener University School of Law.



  1. siweni says

    The question, “What should happen when a law conflicts with someone’s religious practice?”, also can be asked when a law conflicts with one’s moral imperative. After all do not atheists, agnostics, and some secularists struggle with the same tensions and conflicts in their lives?

    Those who argue that religious law trumps the government’s law because those laws come from G-d would seem to have the final word because they cite the ultimate authority – G-d. However that would mean that the “honor killings” such as we have seen by some Muslims in America would be protected by the separation of church and state in the United States.

    But what of our fellow citizens who do not recognize G-d as the ultimate authority or even that He exists? Does not their moral imperative trump what they consider immoral laws such as were enacted in Nazi Germany (the Nuremberg Laws) or the governmental decrees and actions of monsters like Stalin and Mao?

    Conflicts between one’s conscience and government need to be resolved whether we are G-d fearing or not. Personal beliefs, be they religion based or moral imperatively driven, will at times come in conflict with ‘”the law”. It has been the case throughout all of recorded human history and I am certain it will not change in the foreseeable future, if ever.

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