Why should you care if a Sikh isn’t allowed to carry his ceremonial dagger into the workplace? What difference does it make if a Muslim woman cannot wear a headscarf to school? Even before the founding of America, Christians were the leading champions of religious liberty. Our defense of freedom was broad-based, and extended to advocating for the conscience protections of other faiths. As the Baptist leader John Leland wrote in 1820, “All should be equally free—Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians.”
Recently, though, there has been a subtle shift in the views of many Christians concerning who should qualify for religious protections. As has always been the unfortunate case, a minority refuses to defend the conscience of anyone who does not follow their own faith tradition.* However, an increasing number make the opposite mistake. They are quick to defend minority faiths, such as Sikhs, Hindus, and Native American religions, while hesitant to rally behind those who identify as Christian.
Because of the priority of religious freedom, the protection of the individual’s conscience should be a higher priority than the advancement of our preferred political causes. We shouldn’t let opinion polls scare us away from standing with those who refuse to discard their conscience and convictions. We should stand with those who stand by their beliefs because it is the right thing to do.
This does not require, of course, that every religious objection be honored and every exemption given. Although all Americans are entitled to religious liberty, religious liberty is never an absolute claim. Religious freedom is not a trump card that allows us any and every advantage over our neighbor. Because we live in a religiously pluralistic society, we must continually work to find ways of resolving conflicts in a way that is respectful of everyone involved.
A Model for Evaluating Religious Liberty Objections
How do we find the proper balance? A necessary first step is to adopt a standard by which we can fairly consider the claims of religious objectors.
One way to think about this is to plunder the Egyptians with a thought experiment used by John Rawls, a philosopher with whom we disagree on almost everything. As a conception of justice, Rawls’s thought experiment is fundamentally flawed. But used in another way it can help us focus on Jesus’s admonition that “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12).
Beginning with a minimal assumption about human nature and morality, Rawls attempted to develop the principle of justice under which it would be most reasonable for people to choose to live. The just social life, according to Rawls, could be derived from a thought experiment in which people imagined an “original position” where they decide upon social rules. In order to maximize fairness, the philosopher proposed that the rules be developed from behind a “veil of ignorance” which prevents their knowing anything about their own situation in the hypothesized society:
Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. The principles of justice are chosen from behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain. (A Theory of Justice, 12)
While we reject Rawls’s conception of justice, the “veil of ignorance” can be useful in helping us to think about how religious liberty should be applied in the most fair and unbiased manner. Let’s consider how this “veil” can help think through a religious objection related to employment.
The Three Steps for Evaluation
First, we place the religious objector behind the veil of ignorance. We strip away all knowledge we have about their situation, such as whether they are from a minority or privileged class, whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Jain, and even whether we consider their religious objection to be deserving of our respect. This allows us to strip away our biases and prejudices, both positive and negative, so that we give fair consideration to the religious believer. Placed behind the veil of ignorance, the only thing we know is that a particular individual has a religious objection.
Second, we must understand the basic laws that apply to the situation. Far too often Christians begin with what they think the law should be and form an opinion about the legitimacy of the objection. The result is that we begin advocating for our claims based on ignorance rather than knowledge. While there may be legal nuances that affect the resolution of the objection, we should always attempt to base our views on the applicable laws and adjust accordingly when we become aware of relevant information.
In the case of employment, the primary law to be considered is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This provision requires an employer to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless the employer can demonstrate that accommodation would result in undue hardship on the conduct of its business.
Using this standard we can ask, “Did the employer attempt to provide a reasonable accommodation?” We may disagree on what that standard requires, but we now have a yardstick by which to measure the outcome.
Third, we should consider whether allowing the religious objection would unduly burden others. This can be the most difficult step in the evaluation since it requires us to make a judgment about harms to other people. By using the veil of ignorance, though, we can better determine the level of burden. Rather than judge the burden based on the religious objection, we can place the burden behind the veil by pretending we don’t know the cause of the hardship.
For instance, let’s assume the burden is that a service can only be provided to us at a certain time of day and on a certain day of the week. Under what conditions would we consider this an undue burden rather than a mere inconvenience? Would we consider this an unduly harsh burden if the cause of the limited hours was that a government agency was only open during those times? If not, then we should not consider it unduly harsh if the cause is because of a religious objection. (In some instances, the law prescribes the criterion for what is considered an undue burden.)
Armed with this three-part model—the veil of ignorance, the legal standard, and the burden criteria—we can consider our employment example by asking one simple question: “Did the religious believer inform their employer of their objection, was there an attempt to provide a reasonable accommodation, and did it place an undue burden on others?”
Championing Freedom for All Believers
By applying this model, we can ensure that we fairly consider individual cases of religious objections based on conscience. Additionally, by advocating for this model we make it clear that we are applying a consistent standard in all cases, undercutting criticism that we are privileging a particular group because of class, race, faith, or political cause.
In the near future threats to religious liberty will become increasingly common. Now is the time to show that Christians are the true champions of freedom for all believers. We can’t afford to be perceived as fair-weather defenders, picking and choosing what cases of religious freedom we consider worthy. By advocating for the “veil” model—a standard which can be embraced by everyone—we send a signal that we Christians will remain stalwart defenders of the “first freedom” for all Americans—even the ones we’d prefer not to defend.
*In a forthcoming article the authors will present a biblical argument for defending the religious liberty of non-Christians.