Thursday, September 30, 2021

Religious Exemption Exemption

Kate Cohen in the Washington Post:

Religious exemptions make no sense to me.

These escape clauses from our civic compact allow people to claim that such-and-such a law does not apply to them since it conflicts with their “sincerely held religious belief.”

A person can claim a religious exemption to the equal opportunity clause that’s required in all federal contracts; to the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act; and, in some states, to the requirement that a child be immunized to attend public school.

This seems crazy. Obviously not everyone agrees with every law, but that’s the bummer about living in a society. In a democracy, if you feel strongly enough, you can set about finding like-minded people and try to change the law. Or, if that doesn’t work, and you truly believe it’s a sin to, say, fill contraceptive prescriptions, then (a) don’t be a pharmacist or (b) risk getting fired. Wouldn’t God appreciate the gesture?

If your religion won’t let you get vaccinated against the coronavirus, then don’t get the shot, but be prepared to suffer the consequences.

If your God-given anti-mask beliefs are sincerely held, then they’ll carry you through trying moments such as homeschooling your child and driving from Miami to Houston instead of flying. Martyrdom is supposed to be hard!

But ever since the Texas abortion ban went into effect, I’ve been rethinking exemptions. Maybe we actually need more of them.

If religious people can opt out of secular laws they find sinful, then maybe the rest of us should be able to opt out of religious laws we find immoral.

That’s right: immoral. We act as if religious people are the only ones who follow a moral compass and the rest of us just wander around like sheep in search of avocado toast. But you don’t need to believe in God or particular religious tenets to have a strong sense of right and wrong.


Religious laws are a part of our history, ranging in character from inconvenient (“blue” or “Sunday” laws) to unconscionable (laws banning interracial and same-sex marriage). But they are not a thing of the past. In fact, they seem to be enjoying a resurgence. There are laws that discriminate against trans people. Laws that permit or require schools to teach creationism along with evolution. Laws that require schools to teach abstinence but not contraception.

Such laws try to force 21st-century America into alignment with a first-century moral code according to some toxic combination of political posturing, fear-mongering and — sure, why not? — the sincere beliefs of a certain subset of people who adhere to a certain religion.

If they’re going to be making these laws, and the Supreme Court is going to let them, then the rest of us should be able to opt out.

To be fair, there are a lot of religious people who agree with this: singling out exemptions for people of particular denominations who have achieved political power but kicking aside others is both unconstitutional and immoral.  But because groups such as the Quakers or Unitarians don’t have a stranglehold on a political party, they can’t re-work the tax laws so that those of us who oppose war can opt out of paying taxes that go to support the Department of Defense, or make the 25th day of the Twelfth Month a regular work day instead of a federal holiday.

Churches should be subject to the same tax structure as any other business, and if they want to make their work a non-profit or a charity, such as supporting the poor and giving shelter to the homeless, there are plenty of provisions in the tax code that allow for that.  But they should pay real estate and use taxes along with the rest of us; after all, if the church — or meeting house — catches fire, they will be protected by the same fire department that puts out the fire of a tax-paying business or citizen.  And it’s not like megachurches — or even your normal-sized congregation — hasn’t figured out how to get money from their attenders, and I daresay included in those pews are a fair number of people who know how to do it.

Frankly, I don’t think there will ever be any change in the “religious” exemptions as long as there are elected officials like the lieutenant governor of North Carolina who sounds a lot like the Taliban.  As we’ve learned both in Texas and Afghanistan, they can win.

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