On Religious Exemptions to Civil Rights

This country has a strong religious tradition. New England was founded by religious zealots who left England because the Court of St. James was not pious enough. The First Great Awakening of the mid 18th Century witnessed these conservative denominations doubling down on their expressions of belief, with Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon of 1741 as the paradigmatic example of this religious rebirth. By the early 19th Century, the Second Great Awakening created new Christian denominations and gave the Abolitionist Movement moral heft.

Some historians describe this period of American religious history as the "individualization of religion." What they mean is that while Protestants always distinguished themselves from Catholics by their focus on the believer — to Calvinists, for example, salvation could found inside, not by priestly absolution — the American religious "awakenings" further decentralized religious observance to the individual. Congregation members were encouraged to pray on their own, to live the religious life in every personal decision they make and to see religious belief as the guiding force behind their daily lives. The pastor focused on individual sin, not the role of religion in society at large; the congregation was a gathering of individual sinners, not a community of man searching for salvation.

Shaysrebellion At the same time, American democracy began a long transition from elites who focused on the common good — think Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who used The Federalist Papers to argue for a strong central government that would temper the widely fluctuating and wild will of the people — to a "small-d" democratic culture that prized individualism. This was an American society characterized by Shays' Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and then later by Jacksonian Democracy and, ultimately, the principle that secession was somehow a very American thing to do. Shays' Rebellion was a tax revolt that pitted rugged individualists on the frontier against wealthier businessmen whose livelihood looked eastward across the Atlantic. Not surprisingly, the Whiskey Rebellion was also a tax revolt of westerners against easterners: in 1791, Congress levied a tax on whiskey, which was made and distilled in western parts of Pennsylvania and other states, so the new government back east could raise needed revenue. And, by the 1820s, when the supposed "man on the people" Andrew Jackson brought a little bit of Main Street into the hallowed, stifling halls of Washington, D.C., the language of Jackson's democrats was steeped in the little guy-versus-the big bad central government.

If anything, our society has become more religious and more individualistic. After the middle of the 20th Century, federal law took a decidedly individual rights focus, incorporating the Bill of Rights to the states and ushering in the greatest rights-based revolution in history. At the same time, evangelical religious movements grew in popularity, with religious conservatives flexing their muscles in the political and social arena since the 1970s.

This reflects a society that is part Horatio Alger and part Jonathan Edwards, part pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and part original sinner. It makes sense that respect for religious freedom would have a strong presence in this society.

But, that duality no longer describes who we are.

As a society, we have made the collective decision that private religious observance does not trump group civil rights. This decision is manifested in what are called "public accommodation laws." Public accommodation laws prohibit, in the paradigmatic example of New Jersey, "an owner, manager, or employee of any place that offers goods, services and facilities to the general public, such as a restaurant, hotel, doctor's office, camp, or theater, from directly or indirectly denying or withholding any accommodation, service, benefit, or privilege to an individual because of that individual's race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, marital status, domestic partnership or civil union status, sex, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or disability." Of course, those terms differ from state to state; in a state without civil unions, there can be no anti-discrimination law based on civil union status, for example. There are lots of public accommodations laws: the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are just two of the most famous statutes with non-discrimination in public accomodations provisions.

Regardless of those differences, public accommodation laws exist in every state and even if they have not yet been amended to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, they should, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it reflects the choice we have made in society that respect for community identity trumps the religious exercise of those who avail themselves of commerce and state or federal law. It is a classic conflict between two so-called rights — one whose answer is implicit in the very existence of public accommodations laws — that cannot be answered simply by recourse to the view that we as a society should treat everyone equally.

If equality were all that mattered, there would be no way to value one person's right over another; the right to religious freedom is a right just like the right to marry. Nor is this simply a matter of non-discrimination: public accommodations laws discriminate against those who would discriminate. Rather, we have made a value judgment that certain exercise of individual rights conflict with fostering minority identity in a pluralistic society. It is for that reason that religious exemptions for private individuals who wish to discriminate against gay couples are simply un-American.


Ari Ezra Waldman is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. After practicing in New York for five years and clerking at a federal appellate court in Washington, D.C., Ari is now on the faculty at California Western School of Law in San Diego, California. His research focuses on gay rights and the First Amendment. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.


  1. says

    “Rather, we have made a value judgment that certain exercise of individual rights conflict with fostering minority identity in a pluralistic society.”

    I would suggest that “fostering minority inclusion in a pluralistic society” is closer to the goal.

  2. dms says

    I think religious groups should be allowed to exempt themselves from having to allow people from marrying. I don’t need rights in the catholic church. I can choose not to belong. Hopefully the general attitude of discrimination will either kill through attrition the church that does not recognize equality or the church will amend their position when they see there is no real threat. The government should stay out or religion and religion should stay out of government.

  3. says

    I agree with DMS. As I’ve explained elsewhere, the “conflict” between religious freedom and gay rights is the result of artificially constructing a zero-sum game where none inherently exists.

  4. anon says

    Ari’s argument falls flat in the face of practical politics. You simply can’t know how political forces will move in the future, so declaiming any first order principles for the structuring of society does not lead to any actual policy. That, and any argument that essentially says “the way I see it, I’m right” won’t get you very far. One could equally argue that because of pluralism, a first-do-no-harm approach would not allow gay marriage to exist because not everyone agrees to it.

  5. Andreas says

    A similar argument was used here in Ireland by some groups when the parliament was debating the civil partnership act. It was rejected. Anyway, I agree with what DMS said above.

  6. BC says

    Great article, but I think universal human rights might figure into this more prominently – this piece paints a false picture of equality of rights. My interest in not being killed trumps someone else’s interest in killing me not because as a society the U.S., though it could equally have chosen otherwise, has decided it values life over the satisfaction and excitement one gets from murder. It’s more because the one right is fundamentally stronger than the other.

    Sure, universalism and natural law are difficult and fraught with contradictions and problems, but the idea that any society is free to make whatever tradeoffs it deems in its interest isn’t really okay either. Look at Myanmar.

  7. Vic says

    Ari, this article is an unusual fail for you. We don’t need your musings on history and philosophy. What would have been helpful is a discussion of the rather complex and confusing law on this subject. In the 1990s, there was a series of cases in which religious landlords claimed to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws. Incredibly, one of the courts that ruled in favor of a discriminatory landlord was the MA Supreme Judicial Court. Other courts came down the other way. On top of that, we have state versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which purports to give religious people a free ride unless the govt. can show it has a compelling interest in forcing compliance.

    This issue remains very much unsettled and it is a grave threat to the rule of law. When you have millions of people claiming that their religion guides them in every aspect of daily life and at the same time claiming that religious motivation is the basis of an exemption from otherwise applicable law, you have the ingredients for a disaster.

  8. Rin says

    Outside of hospitals that take a Hippocratic Oath and taxes which we must all pay to keep our feet on this ground…

    I think let the discriminators discriminate and suffer the consequences of boycotts and loss of money. The wheat (to use a religious expression) can be separated from the chaff come harvest time. When the good, nice, non-judging people make money for being good-hearted, loving, and tolerant people and those who have hate in their hearts make less because they’re meanies…THEN it will be sorted.

    To force someone to bake your wedding cake or rent you a hall…sure, sure you get some level of temporary satisfaction from knowing jerks were forced into something, BUT…they just got your money and the good people who would have done it without being forced did not.

  9. BC says

    I don’t know, Rin. Would that have worked with the lunch counters in the south? Maybe this situation is different enough, but sometimes social change needs the backing of the law to give it force and legitimacy.

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