Foundations of Religious Liberty: Toleration or Respect?

Brian Leiter

San Diego Law Review

Abstract: Most Western constitutions, including the American, single out religious beliefs and practices for special kinds of legal solicitude and protection. In this essay, I want to ask a question about the moral foundations of such a legal practice. Should we think of what I will refer to generically as “the law of religious liberty” as grounded in the moral attitude of respect for religion or on the moral attitude of tolerance of religion? My question will not be which of these moral ideals best explains the existing law of religious liberty in the United States, or elsewhere, though legal doctrine is a relevant data point for the inquiry. Instead, I want to ask which of these moral attitudes makes the most sense given what religion is. Of course, our legal practices offer some evidence about “what makes the most sense” because they are, quite obviously, not detached from our moral attitudes. But the law is but one data point among others, and if it were to turn out that aspects of existing legal doctrine in the United States should yield before the best account of the moral foundations of religious liberty that is a conclusion I am happy to endorse.


Leiter B. Foundations of Religious Liberty: Toleration or Respect? 47 San Diego L. Rev. 935 (2010).