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Don’t Let Religious Liberty Claims Mask Bad Faith Arguments


Inconsistent and insincere appeals for exemptions to public health rules are undermining important freedoms.

If you believe in religious liberty only when it’s good for society, then you really don’t believe in it. A sincere commitment to religious liberty requires support for exemptions that allow people to do things you might disagree with, whether that’s Mennonites refusing to serve in the military, Catholics declining to work with same-sex foster parents, or Native Americans doing drugs.

So supporters of religious liberty and robust religious exemptions might feel conflicted about a court ruling in Pennsylvania that rejected religious exemptions to mask mandates in schools. On the one hand, the best information from public health experts says masks are a good, simple way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. On the other, shouldn’t we support the rights of people we think are wrong?

Religious liberty is too important to let it get misused. It’s not a waiver to avoid all inconveniences in life or, worse, a tool to make political statements. For religious liberty to survive political and legal scrutiny in the future, we must safeguard exemptions against abuse. We can’t let appeals to shared faith or shared “enemies” mask bad faith arguments that undermine our religious liberty.

At the height of World War II, West Virginia schools required students to begin their day by saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. For Jehovah’s Witnesses these requirements amounted to idolatry, violating their deeply held convictions. They refused, at significant personal cost.

Eventually, the US Supreme Court ruled that these students should not be coerced to participate, famously declaring, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, …

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