American Muslims' Demands for Religious Exemptions:

My post on the Muslim soldier's religious exemption demand reminded me of a point I made several months ago:

Recent years have seen a set of requests by Muslims for exemptions from generally applicable laws and work rules. A Muslim policewoman in Philadelphia, for instance, asked for an exemption from police-uniform rules so that she could wear a Muslim headdress. A few years ago, a Muslim woman in Florida asked that she be allowed to wear a veil in a driver's license photo. Last year, a Muslim woman in Michigan asked that she be allowed to testify veiled in a small-claims case that she brought.

All these claims were rejected by courts, and likely correctly, though the arguments for the rejection are not open-and-shut. But some of the public reaction I've seen to the claims suggests that people are seeing such claims as some sort of special demands by Muslims for special treatment beyond what is given Christians, Jews, and others. And that turns out not to be quite so: While the claims are for religious exemptions for Muslims, they are brought under general religious-exemption statutes that were designed for all religions and that have historically benefited mostly Christians (since there are so many Christians in America).

The Muslim exemption claims are plausible attempts to invoke established American religious-exemption law, and they deserve to be treated as such -- even if there are good reasons for rejecting them, as American religious-exemption law recognizes. Let us briefly review this law, so that this becomes clearer.... [Go here to keep reading.]

This is an excellent example. People of many religious groups have demanded exemptions from military service. In some measure, American law has chosen to expressly accommodate them, for instance through the conscientious objector exemption for people who oppose all wars (which especially benefits Quakers and other pacifist groups). Some members of other religious groups have also demanded exemptions, for instance when they believed that as Catholics they had a religious obligation not to fight in wars they believed to be unjust. Their claims were considered and rejected, using the then-standard constitutional approach for considering religious exemption demands (which has now been reinstated as a federal statutory approach).

The Muslims are just the latest group to do so. Their objections may be somewhat different from the Catholics', in that to some Muslims they may turn on the religious identity of the people on the other side. But other Muslims' objections appear to be very similar to some more familiar religious objections; for instance, in the case I discuss below, one of the quoted Muslim scholarly opinions suggested a just/unjust war distinction that in principle sounds much like the rule asserted by the Catholic objector in Gillette v. U.S.. And more broadly, Muslims are simply taking advantage of a longstanding American tradition -- the tradition of often (though not always) accommodating people's religious objections to generally applicable laws.

Sometimes the Muslim objector's demands should be rejected and sometimes they should be accepted. But they shouldn't be seen as some striking innovation brought here by some foreign interlopers. One commenter to an earlier post about accommodation of Muslim female athletes complained that, when Muslims "come here, we're expected to conform to their rules, not the other way around." Yet that misses the point: One of our rules, which we've followed for centuries, is precisely that sincere religious objections -- whether brought by familiar religions or recently imported ones -- should often (not always, but often) be accommodated.