Why tolerance of religion is not enough

Originally printed in The Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 2015.

With calm and respectful questions, the nine justices of the US Supreme Court debated yet another case about religious freedom on Wednesday. This one involved a Muslim woman who was not hired by a company because she wore a head scarf. Should the company have asked her why she wore it, perhaps illegally probing her religious beliefs? Or should the woman have told the interviewer she wants an accommodation for wearing a black hijab, despite a company rule against wearing headgear and the color black?

Just how the high court decides the case may be less important than the fact that the oral arguments were polite and, most of all, nonthreatening. Any judge must weigh principles, precedents, and the particulars of each case. If the justices threw any barbs during this session, it was in pithy comments like this one from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about when companies can discriminate in hiring: “They don’t have to accommodate a ball cap. They do have to accommodate a yarmulke.”

The world needs more examples of judicious ways of resolving disputes between the right to religious expression and the demands for justice and the common good. US courts have taken many cases in this area in recent years, especially related to the Affordable Care Act’s impingement on religious practices. And lawmakers are debating more measures aimed at balancing religious freedom and any compelling public need as defined by an elected government.

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