I’ve just begun reading Brian Leiter’s new book, Why Tolerate Religion?, about which I’ll doubtless have more to say – here and elsewhere. Meanwhile, I can report that the book is focused on one main topic within the larger field of freedom of religion (and/or secular government). Leiter concentrates on the topic of why we should accommodate religious practices, even if they fall within the terms of prohibitory laws that are religiously neutral and of general applicability.
For those of you who are familiar with my book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, Leiter is covering the terrain that I deal with mainly in Chapter 7 (although the issues do come up to an extent elsewhere).
Leiter raises the particular issues that he has in mind by presenting us with the example of a Sikh boy who is required by the canons of conduct of his religion to wear a dagger at all times. Should he be exempt from a generally applicable legal rule, with no religious or anti-religious purpose behind it, that forbids weapons at school? If so, what do we say of a boy of the same age who is required to carry a particular dagger that is a family heirloom: one that has been passed down to him ceremonially as part of a longstanding family custom that is, in turn, well grounded in the local culture? Imagine that Boy A (the Sikh) and his family will suffer about the same amount of emotional distress as Boy B and his family… if they are not exempted from the rule to the necessary extent.
Thus, we assume that the family/cultural custom binding Boy B is very meaningful or emotionally important to Boy B and his family, even though the custom is not enjoined by anything that courts of law would regard as a religion (e.g., the custom is not entangled with beliefs about an otherworldly order, or a transcendent way for human beings to flourish, or ideas of immortality or spiritual salvation, or anything that seems closely analogous to any of these).
Leiter offers a fair bit of detail about the two scenarios to make them seem emotionally about equivalent. Should Boy A be exempt from the rule? Should Boy B be exempt from the rule? Both of them, perhaps? Neither of them?
Leiter hasn’t raised this so far, but who, in a liberal democracy, should decide this issue? The legislature (or someone with delegated authority to create rules with the status of subordinate legislation)? The courts? Someone else?
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