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Hadley Arkes: Religion in Public Life Is so Much More Than a Legal Exemption

WASHINGTON — At a speech sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), Amherst College professor Hadley Arkes delivered a powerful defense of the impact of religion in public life, and warned that a defensive strategy focused on an exemption from unjust laws via religious freedom cedes important moral ground in political debate.

"Religion does not come into public life as a reason to be exempted from a law justly applied to others," Arkes, the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding, declared on Tuesday evening. He argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition at the very foundation of America's legal system should apply to all law, and that Christians in particular must advocate for just laws, not just separate protections from laws they consider unjust.

Referring to the key religious freedom case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores involving Hobby Lobby founder David Green, the professor argued that American law should "protect Mr. Green's dignity, not just his religious freedom. We're not pleading for a tolerance of Mr. Green's beliefs, but against an unjust law that does not rightly apply to anyone."

On issues surrounding abortion or the legal mandating of abortion-inducing drugs, Arkes argued that "death cannot stand as a rival good to that of life."

This also applies to free speech cases like NIFLA v. Becerra, where pro-life pregnancy centers were required to advertise for abortion clinics. Arkes called for what many abortion activists would decry as a double standard, saying, "abortionists must be treated differently than pro-life pregnancy centers because one pushes death and another pushes life."

Controversially, the professor actually attacked conservative Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch for defending religious freedom based on the test of "sincerely held belief." (He noted that both justices are his friends, and the criticism is strictly limited to religious freedom issues.)

Arkes accused Alito and Gorsuch of supporting "relativism" in key cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. "Alito and Gorsuch expanded relativism by saying we must protect religious beliefs that we find offensive. Does this extend to Satanism and the worship of doing evil? It cannot, morally, but that's what this test becomes," Arkes claimed.