Questioning and defending freedom of religion

A new book by University of Chicago Law School professor Brian Leiter entitled Why Tolerate Religion? questions the practice of establishing religious liberty as a right:

For example, he says a boy might be permitted to carry a dagger to school as part of his Sikh religion, but the same dagger would not be allowed if it were part of a family tradition.

Cover of Why Tolerate Religion? by Brian Leiter.

Cover of Why Tolerate Religion? by Brian Leiter.

Without having read Brian Leiter’s book (see a review by Robert Merrihew Adams here), it would be unfair to evaluate his assertions, however in the example above, “might be permitted” is the key phrase. It is not always the case that a Sikh student who has been initiated as a Khalsa Sikh would be allowed to carry a kirpan at school, and often when this exemption is made, it involves significant compromise. It is also debatable whether the freedom to practice religion is as problematic or as out-of-place in contemporary society as he may be suggesting. Certainly, members of various religions are not granted carte blanche to practice their faiths in every scenario or circumstance.

Notwithstanding the above, it appears that Brian Leiter is raising interesting and provocative questions about why religion-based objections are granted legitimacy over non-religious ones, particularly, as he suggests, in the “West”. Perhaps where the debate may lay is in what we define as “religion”.

Coincidentally, a serendipitous rebuttal may be found in a recent unrelated event hosted by Oklahoma University, in which Rajdeep Singh discussed the pursuit of religious liberty in his work as the Director of Law and Policy with the Sikh Coalition:

“There are places in this country where it could potentially be illegal to be a Sikh, Muslim or Jew, and as an American, that’s disheartening.”

I would imagine that it would be interesting to put these two men in a room and listen to their conversation about religious freedom in America.


  1. I mentioned in another post that the vast majority of Sikh communities reside in “may-issue” states which make it difficult to lawfully carry firearms for defense of self, others and property, especially those who are not US citizens. California is one of them and so are New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware and Maryland. This sort of public policy extends to sharp objects as well. in the 1950’s, adolescent males in nearly all USA states carried pocket knives and high schools had marksmanship classes. It was a different world then as I have been told.

    The SCOTUS boxed itself in with a number of rulings from Everson v. Ewing Board of Education to Engel v. Vitale. Precedent has been established that no special treatment for a particular religion is to be permitted. Particularly in my state of New Jersey, public policy says in so many words that “everyone is a criminal and everything is a weapon”. A kirpan as properly constructed according to relevant traditions is a weapon, plain and simple. AFAIK, if it were effective as a weapon, it would not fulfill its role. I don’t even think that blade length exemptions apply in New Jersey. Changing state law to allow kirpans would eventually be struck down at the federal level based on current case law. I personally have what could be considered a “Miri-Piri” view of the first two Constitutional amendments (i.e. inseparable in that the Second protects the First and the First makes the Second worthwhile–enshrined right of self-defense for matters of life and conscience).

    As a descendant of a targeted people, I have been made sensitive to the issue of religious and other forms of identity liberty.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: