According to Corey Brettschneider, we can protect freedom of religion and promote equality, by distinguishing religious groups’ claims to freedom of expression and association from their claims to financial and verbal support from the state. I am very sympathetic to this position, which fits well with my own views of democratic rights and duties, and with the importance of recognizing the scope for political choice which democratic politics offers to governments and to citizens. This room for political choice, I believe, is necessary if people are to have any chance of reconciling the conflicting moral and political obligations they are likely to face, however idealized our conception of democracy or morality. Granted that no amount of personal and political choice will ever guarantee that we do not encounter tragic choices, and painfully conflicting moral demands, it is an important feature of democracy – or so I believe – that its rights reflect the importance of mitigating these conflicts so that people are able, as a rule, to act as they ought, so that they do not experience their moral sentiments, beliefs and capacities simply as grounds for recrimination, alienation and despair. I therefore believe that democracies have good reason not to force the consciences of the undemocratic and the intolerant, where it is possible to accommodate such people without threatening the rights of others.
However, the fact that I share many of Brettschneider’s intuitions and beliefs does not mean that I share them all. In particular, I find his conception of democracy unduly narrow, and unduly based on a rather idealized conception of the American constitution which is unlikely to appeal to those whose conceptions of democracy are more republican, more socialist, more pragmatic and more international than his. I have explained these worries elsewhere and drawn out some of their implications for his arguments about privacy and judicial review. There is no need to repeat them here. I will also set to one side my worries about his uninflected, overly abstract and rather reified characterization of the State, in the hope that others will discuss this and that, in the end, a more nuanced conception of the State and a more lively appreciation of the conflicting people, institutions, histories and norms which make up most states, will prove consistent with his arguments.
Finally, I do not propose to enter into a detailed discussion of the difficulties of Brettschneider’s overly abstract and reified conception of State ‘speech’ and ‘expression’ which, while motivated by the language of American constitutionalism, appears to cover pretty much anything a government might do, from raising and spending taxes, to accepting judicial interpretations of contested constitutional provisions, or to affirmatively pronouncing on the goals that will animate its legislative agenda and its aspirations for citizen’s lives. Again, while I would have wished for a more nuanced and analytical discussion of so central a concept as ‘expression’ and, in particular, expression by ‘the State’, I am uncertain that anything fundamental in Brettschneider’s account of citizen rights and duties would be altered in the process. Instead, then, I want to focus on points in Brettschneider’s argument that intrigue, and sometimes puzzle, me the most and where issues of nuance and clarification might make a substantial difference to our views of equality and religious freedom.