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Document Type

Article

Publication Date

4-15-2020

Publication Citation

95 Indiana Law Journal 331 (2020)

Abstract

What role should harm to third parties play in the government’s ability to protect religious rights? The intuitively appealing “harm” principle has animated new theories advanced by scholars who argue that religious exemptions are indefensible whenever they result in cognizable harm to third parties. This third-party harm theory is gaining traction in some circles, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s pending cases in Little Sisters of the Poor and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. While focusing on harm appears at first to provide an appealing, simple, and neutral principle for avoiding other difficult moral questions, the definition of harm itself operates on top of a deep moral theory about what counts as harm and why. Consequently, multiple scholars advancing iterations of these theories use “harm” as a term of art to mean very different things. This in turn results in scholars talking past each other and trading on a superficially simple idea that turns out to be incredibly complex. For this reason, the harm principle has proven unworkable in other contexts, including criminal and environmental law. This Article highlights the flaws of this approach in the religious context by measuring the theory against its own ends, including the theory’s failure to account for harms this approach would cause for religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Refuting the unhelpful fixation on the mere presence of generic harm, this Article makes two important contributions, one descriptive and one normative. First, this Article carefully describes the nuanced ways that courts classify and weigh different types of harm, and it identifies three categories: (1) prohibited harms (meaning harms that are categorically impermissible); (2) probative harms (meaning relevant harms that can be balanced against other harms); and (3) inadmissible harms (meaning harms that are given no weight regardless of how severely or disproportionately they are experienced by third parties). This Article demonstrates how these categories of harm are not limited to religious exemptions but are in fact common to all First Amendment rights. Further, this descriptive framework highlights the competing harms that always arise when First Amendment rights are protected. Second, this Article argues that moving beyond a false dichotomy of harm versus no harm allows one to ask much more fruitful normative questions, including whether there is a justifiable tradeoff between the specific harm and the social goods it provides, whether institutions can be modified to mitigate avoidable harm, and whether disproportionate harms can be distributed in more just ways. This Article offers examples of how these necessary normative questions are already woven into the legal framework that governs many sorts of religious exemptions.

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