Special Exemptions

Christopher L. Eisgruber November/December 1998 Imagine living in a quiet residential neighborhood when a nearby homeowner (call her Mrs. Campbell) starts running a soup kitchen from her garage. Some neighbors object, fearful that the soup kitchen will increase traffic and attract "undesirables" to the area. They persuade town officials to enforce their zoning ordinance and stop Mrs. Campbell.

Mrs. Campbell sues, seeking to exempt her charitable project from the zoning ordinance. At the hearing the judge says, "Now, Mrs. Campbell, I need to know whether you are running this soup kitchen because of your religious beliefs. If you are, then I'll permit you to go ahead. If you're not, I won't."

Surely the judge's question is an affront to religious liberty. Perhaps one can sympathize with Mrs. Campbell, and believe that charitable endeavors ought to enjoy special exemptions from zoning laws. Or perhaps one sympathizes with the unhappy neighbors, and believe that Mrs. Campbell ought to move her otherwise laudable project to a more suitable location. But either way her right to do good works and her right to use her property as she wishes ought not to depend upon her religious beliefs.

Consider the bizarre and uncomfortable questions that would arise in the colloquy between the judge and Mrs. Campbell. Suppose Mrs. Campbell has long felt it intolerable for people to go hungry as a matter of simple justice, but also felt that her religion counsels that people should aid the needy. Does it matter whether she has more than one reason for doing good works? Or suppose, while Mrs. Campbell's faith requires her to care for the needy, it recognizes that there are many forms such care can take. Or suppose that within her faith charitable acts are regarded as good but not requisite for leading a religious life. Does it matter just how specific and how demanding Mrs. Campbell's religion is? Does it matter whether Mrs. Campbell attends regular church services? Would she be religious in the right way if she were moved to a life of good works by what she called "Christian ethics," even if she had little or no interest in Christian theology? And suppose Mrs. Campbell shared responsibility for the soup kitchen with her husband, an avowed secular humanist. Would the kitchen be legally permissible on days that she ran it, but not on days when he alone was present?

Is it preposterous to imagine--in a nation that loves liberty and especially prizes freedom of belief--that Mrs. Campbell could be called to account for her beliefs and commitments in this way? No. In fact, it has become fashionable for the governmental to make rights contingent on religious belief in just this manner, and thus to require judges to act like the judge in Mrs. Campell's case. The paradigmatic example of this is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). As its name indicates, RFRA was enacted in the service of religious liberty. Yet it was a misguided attempt to achieve a laudable purpose.

Under RFRA some churches were able to duck zoning laws and operate soup kitchens in residential neighborhoods when everyone else was prohibited from the same. Some bankrupt religious debtors were able to circumvent bankruptcy laws and make charitable contributions when all other debtors were prevented from doing so. Some religious landlords claimed that they should be able to defy civil rights laws that prohibited everyone else from discriminating against unwed couples. It was even the case that some religious men who flouted child-support obligations were excused from contempt sanctions imposed upon other "deadbeat dads."

In City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court held that RFRA was unconstitutional, at least insofar as it purported to constrain state and local governments. But the era of RFRA has not necessarily passed. RFRA itself may continue to apply to federal legislation like the bankruptcy laws, since Flores focused on Congress's power to apply the act to state and local laws. Meanwhile, many states are considering statutes patterned upon RFRA, and some members of Congress are considering legislation that would reproduce the effects of RFRA but would try to circumvent Flores.

What explains RFRA's popularity? Its defenders point out that laws that are neutral on their face can nevertheless impair the ability of religious believers to practice their faith. That is true, and it's a problem of great concern. RFRA's supporters accordingly believe that this leaves Americans in a kind of Free Exercise dilemma. Special privileges to disobey otherwise valid and reasonable laws, reserved for the truly religious alone, may be awkward--but such privileges are the only way to accommodate the needs of religious believers.

There is, however, a better way to promote a strong version of free exercise. First, judges and legislators should take a generous view of personal liberty, not just for religious believers, but for all people. Second, when the government carves out special exceptions for the benefit of secular interests, it should be required to do the same for comparable religious interests. And finally, when the government imposes broad, generally applicable restrictions on conduct, it should show the same sensitivity to minority religious interests that it shows to mainstream religious and secular interests.

Start with idea that the Constitution should be understood to guarantee a generous share of liberty for all people. It's easy to see how that liberty will benefit religious believers. For example, in the famous case of West Virginia v. Barnette, some schoolchildren refused to comply with a state law requiring them to salute the flag. They had religious grounds for their choice: they were Jehovah's Witnesses, and their faith forbade them from honoring any graven image. The Supreme Court upheld the children's right to opt out of the flag salute ceremony, but it did so without creating any special privilege for religious believers. The Court declared that the state simply had no power to compel anybody to salute the flag.

As a second example, consider one of the more appealing claims that arose under RFRA. Orthodox Jews have sought relief from zoning decisions that prohibited them from using their homes as shteebles--that is, from using them for small regular worship services. Orthodox Jews should have the right to conduct such services. They should have it, though, not as the result of any special privilege unique to religious believers, but because the Constitution protects the right of all people to invite friends, acquaintances, and neighbors to gather with them in their homes for peaceful purposes. One might even construe this right broadly enough to encompass Mrs. Campbell and her soup kitchen (and, of course, if Mrs. Campbell enjoys such a right, so too should any church operating in a residential neighborhood).

Home schooling provides a third illustration. Religious parents may have special reasons for wishing to educate their children at home. They may, for example, want to protect their children from influences that might damage their faith. Or they may think it desirable to provide a pervasively religious learning experience of a kind that is, in their judgment, not available from any school in their area. Such parents should have the right to school their children at home. But it should be recognized that their religious interests are a specific version of a more widely shared interest--the interest that all parents have in providing the best possible education and upbringing for their children. And the constitutional right protecting them should be equally broad: it should respect the autonomy of all parents, not merely those who have religious motives for their decision.

Consider now the second prong of this approach to religious liberty, which demands that government not turn a blind eye to religious interests when it crafts exemptions for secular ones. A recent First Amendment case from Newark, New Jersey, nicely illustrates the point. Newark's police department requires that its officers be clean-shaven. Two Islamic policemen sought an exemption on religious grounds; their faith required that they wear beards. The police department refused to relax its rule, but a federal district court granted relief. The court pointed out the police department made an exception for police officers with sensitive skin, who would suffer a rash if forced to shave. Since the department was willing to accommodate the special interests of officers susceptible to skin rashes, it was obliged to be equally receptive to the religious interests of the Islamic officers.

So far these recommendations have been quite consistent with the Supreme Court's current reading of the free exercise clause. The third suggestion makes a departure from the Court's free exercise doctrine. In Department of Employment Services v. Smith, the Court addressed a claim from practitioners of a Native American religion who sought exemption from an Oregon law. The Native American faith involved the ritual consumption of peyote. Oregon law prohibited the possession or use of peyote.

In Smith the Supreme Court distinguished sharply between laws such as Newark's police department regulation, which included exceptions, and laws such as the Oregon peyote regulation, which did not. The Court announced a broad per se rule to deal with any exemption claim directed at laws such as Oregon's: "The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes)."

The Justices did not want the impossible task of deciding which religious people deserved what privileges in cases about zoning, bankruptcy, education, and virtually every other imaginable topic of legal regulation. The Court's unease is understandable. But it does not justify a stark distinction between laws that include exceptions and laws that do not.

For example, the Oregon law against peyote consumption may have looked like a clean, bright-line rule with no exceptions. Suppose, though, one stepped back and looks at the law in its larger context. Oregon had a host of laws dealing with drug abuse. Among these was a law permitting counties to prohibit alcohol consumption. That law, however, contained an interesting provision: it required dry counties to make exceptions for the benefit of religious faiths (notably, Christian faiths) that use alcohol in religious rituals. Thus Oregon's laws may have reflected a failure to show equal regard for the practices of minority religious believers. Just as Newark made special exceptions to benefit those with special health problems but not those with special religious needs, Oregon's controlled substance laws included exceptions for the benefit of mainstream faiths but not minority ones.

Though it's possible to offer good reasons that peyote and alcohol should be treated differently, the basic point is clear: neutral and generally applicable laws may reflect a failure by the government to show equal regard for minority religious interests. Insofar as the Court in Smith was insensitive to the problem, its free exercise doctrine is unsatisfactory.

RFRA was passed in reaction to Smith, and the most generous way to view the statute is as an effort to cure the insensitivity of the Smith decision toward the requirement of equal regard for the needs of all citizens, including members of minority religious faiths. So understood, the goal of RFRA was impartiality, not special privilege. But so understood, RFRA was doomed from the outset. It incorporated the toughest test known to constitutional law, "the compelling state interest test." To defeat an exemption claim, the government had to show either that its law imposed no "substantial burden" on religious practices, or that it had a "compelling interest" to justify the burden. In the law's eyes, few interests count as "compelling." As a result, whatever RFRA was aiming at, it produced a stark, inequitable privilege available only to those who were religious, and religious in the right way.

This claim is not mere conjecture or academic argument. In one area after another courts found that RFRA demanded that some religious persons be excused from obeying reasonable and evenhanded laws, while secular persons who were otherwise in exactly the same position and religious persons who were acting on the basis of secular motives--however lofty and altruistic their motives might be--were required to obey those laws.

RFRA's defects were not merely the product of clumsy legislative drafting. They emanated from a profoundly mistaken view of what it means to be "strong on free exercise." That view supposes that religious exercise is free only if religious conduct is presumptively and uniquely immune from any form of government regulation--and hence only if religious believers are presumptively entitled to special exemptions not available to others.

Professor Michael McConnell, an exponent of this idea, says that constitutional law should aspire to match a "hypothetical world in which individuals make decisions on the basis of their own religious conscience, without the influence of government." Government should, of course, stay out of church affairs, and it should not manipulate people's religious beliefs. But government cannot help having an enormous influence on the activities of churches and religious individuals, just as it has an enormous impact on all groups and individuals within any modern society. Government provides the security, resources, and stability without which religious faith and activity would be resoundingly difficult, if not impossible, to pursue. It inculcates and enforces principles of morality--such as, for example, the principle that persons enjoy equal status regardless of their race, faith, or sex, or the principle that speech should be free--which are more congenial to some religions than others. And it doles out ownership rights without which it would be impossible even to conceptualize questions about whether Mrs. Campbell can use "her" house to run a soup kitchen, whether for religious reasons or any other reasons.

Churches and religious individuals live within a society permeated by law. They cannot help benefiting from the existence of the legal regime that surrounds them; indeed, it would be deeply unjust to deny them any of the benefits that are available to everyone else. So too, churches and religious individuals must respect the boundaries set by reasonable, evenhanded rules that everyone else is required to obey. That is the inevitable price that accompanies the benefits of the rule of law. Any law drafted in service of a conception of Free Exercise that fails to accept this simple proposition is likely to do far more harm than good to religious believers and to religious liberty itself.

RFRA is a case in point. Far from reducing the impact of government upon religion, RFRA overtly manipulated religious belief. Imagine Mrs. Campbell's reaction when she learned, from the judge or her lawyer, that the fate of her soup kitchen depended upon whether her motives were religious and religious in just the right sort of way. She would have an obvious incentive not just to characterize her motives in the most favorable way but to reconceive them in order to justify her characterization of them. There is something deeply insidious about a law that puts well motivated persons in the position of giving skewed witness to their own beliefs, under penalty of denying them the license to pursue those beliefs.

RFRA's demise has sparked a new round of legislative activity, including the so-called Religious Liberty Protection Act. Unfortunately, this bill, like nearly all the statutes now percolating in Congress and in the legislatures of many states, repeat RFRA's central error: they invoke the "compelling state interest" test. That is a great misfortune. Religious liberty is a laudable legislative concern, but it can be furthered only by legislation that expands the liberties available to everybody, or legislation that seeks to ensure that all interests (religious and secular, mainstream and minority) are treated impartially. Until legislators are ready to leave the mistakes of RFRA behind them, the legislation they produce will be ill conceived, counterproductive, and unconstitutional.

Christopher L. Eisgruber is professor of law at the New York University School of Law, and Lawrence G. Sager is the Robert B. McKay professor of law at the same institution.



1 42 U.S.C.
Article Author: Christopher L. Eisgruber