Believers and citizens: Religious freedom in a deliberative democracy

Date of Completion

January 2001


Religion, General|Philosophy|Political Science, General




A deliberative democracy is a society committed to the ideal of reasoned political deliberation as the source of legitimate laws and policies. Recently, the role that citizens' religious convictions should play in political deliberation has been the subject of much philosophical debate. I enter this debate by rejecting the claim that participants in political deliberations must refrain from basing their political proposals on their religious convictions. I argue that citizens and legislators may freely base their political proposals on their religious convictions without violating any principles of democratic political morality. I also develop a “pluralist” model of political dialogue that shows how the adherents of conflicting religious and non-religious perspectives can engage in mutually respectful political deliberations even in the absence of a shared moral vocabulary. ^ In addition to the role of religion in political deliberation, I consider the relationship between religion and the law. At issue is how to interpret two constitutional provisions relating to religion: the right to religious non-establishment and the right to religious free exercise. I argue that the “separationist” conception of religious non-establishment, which holds that all laws lacking a secular justification constitute prohibited establishments of religion, is mistaken. Legislators do not violate the right to religious non-establishment when they enact laws based on their religious-moral convictions. ^ I defend an interpretation of the right to religious free exercise according to which the state should not interfere with people's religious practices unless it is necessary to pursue compelling state interests that cannot be pursued in a less restrictive way. I use this “pro-exemptions” interpretation of religious freedom to determine the correct resolution of a particular case, Mozert v. Hawkins, which pits the state's educational interests in promoting autonomous religious commitment against a group of fundamentalists' interest in passing their religious beliefs on to their children. I claim that the fundamentalists should win the case because while the state does have a compelling interest in promoting religious autonomy, the educational programs used to promote autonomy in American public schools have serious flaws that undermine their status as the “least restrictive means” to the state's legitimate educational ends. ^