In ways almost beyond counting, our legal system treats religion differently, subjecting it both to certain protections and certain disabilities. Developing the specifics of those protections and disabilities, along with more general theories tying the specifics together and justifying them collectively, has long been the usual stuff of debate among courts and commentators.
Those debates still continue. But in recent years, increasingly people have asked a slightly different question—whether religion should be singled out for special treatment at all, in any context, for any purpose. Across the board, but especially in the context of religious exemptions from generally applicable laws, many have come to doubt religion’s distinctiveness. And traditional defenses of religion’s distinctiveness have been rejected as unpersuasive or religiously partisan.
This Article offers a defense of our legal tradition and its special treatment of religion. Religious freedom can be justified on religion-neutral grounds; it serves the same kinds of values as other rights (like freedom of speech). And while religion as a category may not perfectly correspond to the underlying values that religious freedom serves, that kind of mismatch happens commonly with other rights and is probably inevitable. Ultimately, religious liberty makes sense as one important liberty within the pantheon of human freedoms. Religion may not be uniquely special, but it is special enough.