The Constitution may prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, but should common sense? After all, to give extreme examples, religions have advocated such things as cannibalism and human sacrifice. What stops people concealing any sort of immorality or false beliefs under the label of religion?

First a point about "discrimination." The Constitution prohibits government discrimination against religion, but it doesn't, for example, prohibit me from refusing to associate with known worshipers of the Great Spaghetti Monster. So we'll take it as read that government discrimination is what's at issue. With that in mind...

Cannibalism is illegal whether or not it's done under the banner of religion. So is human sacrifice. More generally: various kinds of conduct are either illegal or could be made illegal if that seemed to be the right thing to do. That means it's not clear what's gained by outlawing religions that supposedly advocate such things.

Maybe someone could say that advocating bad things should also be illegal, whether done in the name of religion or not. And depending on what we mean by "advocate," that's already true in some extreme cases. Conspiring to commit a crime is illegal. Inciting a riot is illegal. But the Constitution and American political mores give people very wide latitude in what they can advocate for --- even if it's something most of us find abhorrent. We make a sharp distinction between speech and conduct. Among the motivations for this is a healthy suspicion about government. Governments that get into the censorship business don't have a good track record of doing it wisely.

That's related to another point. "Facts" about what religions do or don't advocate are anything but simple. For example: in the Hebrew Bible (or, as Christians refer to it, the Old Testament) there are dicta that call for putting adulterers to death. (See Leviticus 20:10). To conclude from this that Judaism or Christianity advocates the death penalty for adultery would be just plain wrong. And to argue that these religions really do advocate such a thing because their scripture demands it would be a shockingly simple-minded way to think about the relationship between a religious traditions and its texts. Having the government decide what some religious tradition "really" advocates assumes (among many other things) that legislators or civil servants have some special insight into such things when in fact there's not the slightest reason to think they do. But even if some religious tradition unequivocally held that we should execute adulterers, we're back to the earlier point: our legal tradition (wisely, I'd say) maintains a pretty sharp distinction between what people say and what they do.

There's a further problem. Christianity, for example, is no one thing. Nor is Judaism nor Islam nor Buddhism nor... Within a religion tradition we often find sharp disagreements about what's acceptable and what's not. Does "Christianity" forbid same-sex marriage? It's a confused question. Within Christianity there are people who argue on both sides. Each side may think the other is confused about what authentic Christianity requires, but in any case, getting the government in the mix doesn't sound to me like a recipe for making things better.

Summing up, it's hard to see what good could come from having governments sort out which religions are acceptable. However, it's all too easy to see the sorts of things that could go wrong.

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