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Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, has recently loosed his pen on the subject of religious freedom, arguing for the restriction of “the legitimate defense of religious freedom to rejecting proposals that stop people from practicing their religion.”

Sounds reasonable enough. But set some examples alongside Singer’s suggestion. The Dutch Parliament is considering a law requiring livestock to be stunned before slaughter. Jewish and Muslim leaders have united in protest, since their dietary doctrines allow eating meat only from animals that were conscious when killed. Says Singer: “When people are prohibited from practicing their religion”for example, by laws that bar worshiping in certain ways”there can be no doubt that their freedom of religion has been violated. But prohibiting the ritual slaughter of animals does not stop Jews or Muslims from practicing their religion.” After all, neither Judaism nor Islam requires the eating of meat. Jews and Muslims could therefore simply forgo eating meat without thereby violating any religious doctrine. And so Singer concludes that this law would not unduly curtail religious freedom.

Taking these claims in hand like a hammer, Singer then turns to the truly tough nut: the Obama Administration’s requirement that Catholic universities and hospitals provide their employees with health insurance policies that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing pharmaceuticals. The use of these contradicts Catholic teaching. Yet, says Singer, no Catholic teaching requires that Catholics run hospitals and universities. By now you can likely guess his solution: Catholics should simply relinquish their universities and hospitals. For Singer, running hospitals and universities, like eating meat, is a convenience one can do without. Since this is an open possibility”and one that does not violate any Catholic teaching”the Obama Administration’s mandate does not unduly restrict religious freedom, on Singer’s view.

One catches a glimpse of Singer’s utopia, full of vegetarian Muslims and Jews and Christians who employ no one. And all under compulsion of the state. His argument for this utopia has three steps. One: if a policy does not compel religionists to violate a teaching of their religion, then the policy is not an improper infringement on the practice of their religion. Two: if a policy does not unduly infringe upon the practice of a religion, it is not a violation of religious freedom. Three: since e.g. the Obama Administration’s mandate does not require Catholics to violate any Catholic dogma, Singer concludes that the mandate doesn’t violate Catholics’ religious freedom. Q.E.D., as philosophers are said to say.

So much for the argument. What shall we say in response? At least this: Singer’s argument succeeds only if every step is true. Yet the first two steps of Singer’s argument cannot both be true, since together they lead to absurd conclusions. Isn’t it possible, after all, for a policy to violate someone’s religious freedom even without compelling her to transgress any teaching of her religion?

Yes, it is possible. And merely possible cases, however fanciful, are sufficient to refute Singer’s premises. So suppose we pass a law requiring all churches to be burned to the ground. If Singer is right, this doesn’t infringe upon religious freedom in the slightest since there’s no requirement in Christianity to worship in any buildings at all, let alone those that are non-smoldering. Or a country might pass a law requiring all Muslims to renounce their religion or have their hands amputated. No problem for religious freedom here, according to Singer, since the practice of Islam doesn’t require any hands at all.

Set aside hypotheticals and consider an actual case. Recently, a religious group sought to fire one of its ministers. Would it violate the freedom of this religious group for the state to prohibit the firing? No, according to Singer, since the group’s religious teachings did not require it to fire that minister. Yet the United States Supreme Court ruled otherwise. Unanimously. The case was Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC , and the ruling came down in January of this year. In that judgment, the Court decided that the religious clauses of the First Amendment”our country’s attempt to enshrine religious freedom”would prevent even this mild form of government interference.

Peter Singer’s views on religious freedom are at odds with reflective commonsense as well as the considered opinions of every member of the Supreme Court, liberal and conservative alike. We have ample reason, then, to reject Singer’s views on this question.

This fall, Tomas Bogardus will join the Philosophy Department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN as an assistant professor.


Peter Singer, The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom

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