One of the principles of liberal democracies is equality before the law. The law shouldn’t protect or harm some citizens more than others (and to some extent this even applies to non-citizens within the jurisdiction of the democracy). The law applies equally to all.
This principle, however, can be put to the test by another principle that is important to liberal democracies, namely tolerance of diversity. Most democracies are multicultural in the sense that they are made up of many different groups that have often radically different and incompatible beliefs, customs and norms. Liberal democracies value this diversity and have mechanisms to protect it, such as rules on tolerance, religious liberty, freedom of association etc. They value this diversity and try to protect it for at least three reasons:
- They believe that group identity is an important source of individual identity and well-being.
- They believe that group diversity offers a plurality of perspectives, and that this is necessary if deliberations on fundamental issues are to progress towards the truth.
- The believe that national unity isn’t only or primarily a matter of assimilation or convergence towards a single, national and official doctrine, but rather of peaceful coexistence in diversity.
Rules and exemptions
This tolerance of diversity can be burdened by equality before the law. Many liberal democracies have been forced to accept certain exceptions to the principle of the equal application of the law, and have exempted some groups from certain generally applicable laws. Some examples:
- Anti-discrimination laws: groups have been allowed to discriminate, for example regarding their membership rules, or their internal operating rules, on the condition that they allow a right to exit of members who come to find this unacceptable.
- Because of their religious obligations, Sikhs have been exempted from the obligation to wear crash helmets for motorcyclists or safety helmets for construction workers, or from the prohibition to wear knives in public.
- Certain indigenous peoples have been exempted from prohibitions to fish or hunt or to slaughter animals in a certain way.
The rationale for such exemptions is that a “neutral” law, which is by definition equally applicable to everyone, may not have the same effect on everyone. It may unintentionally place a relatively heavy burden on a very specific minority because it unintentionally prohibits or compels a certain practice which has special significance for that minority. Such exemptions may be deemed necessary to preserve the distinctive identity and way of life of the minority, and to preserve the diversity and harmony of society as a whole.
This opt-out right, which allows minorities – usually cultural or religious minorities – to not apply or respect the general law, is similar to the right of conscientious objection. In many countries, refusal to serve in the military – otherwise a general legal rule – is a legally recognized option. (However, the opt-out right is not the same as civil disobedience, which isn’t a legally recognized option and the disobedient usually accept the consequences of breaking the law. Breaking the law and publicly accepting the consequences is precisely their purpose. They want to create a public spectacle showing the injustice of the law).
Possible objections against the opt-out right
1. Illiberal consequences
Exemptions are often granted for rules that are not really intended to protect third parties (such as crash helmet rules) or that do not create substantial harm when occasionally they are not applied (e.g. hunting exemptions). However, if we accept the general possibility of an opt-out right, can we not end up in a situation in which minorities are allowed to disrespect fundamental rules such as human rights, either internally in the group or externally? The classic example is the possible right of Muslim minorities in liberal democracies to apply Shari’a law within their communities.
Obviously, such far-reaching exemptions sound outrageous to those of us for whom human rights are very important. Yet I believe that even those exemptions can be justified in certain cases: they would only be acceptable if the following three conditions are jointly met:
- The groups in question do not violate the human rights of people outside of the group.
- The groups provide the right to exit in a substantial way. “Substantial” means that they do not only provide the formal right to exit but also provide members the educational, intellectual, moral, financial and other resources necessary to make a free and conscious choice about staying or leaving. However, it’s often very difficult to say whether a particular group is a truly voluntary association and whether members have a real choice to leave. Only when this is indeed and obviously the case can such far-reaching exemptions be allowed. There’s also the case of group members that are incapable of making a real choice, e.g. children. Exemptions cannot be allowed to produce violations of their rights, since they cannot exit.
- The rights violations are an essential part of the group’s identity rather than an opportunistic policy of the group’s leadership.
2. Exemptions for what?
This third condition leads to a second possible objection to the opt-out right: which elements of a group’s identity are strong and central enough to warrant an exemption from a generally applicable law? Who decides which are these elements? Do we trust the spokespersons of the group? But how are they appointed and do they speak for the group? Or is it not likely that they have some selfish reasons for exemptions and the possible rights violations resulting from them, given that they are likely to be in a position of power inside the group? If not the spokespersons, should it be outside elements, engaging in anthropology, or cultural exegesis?
3. Domino effect of exemptions
Another objection: every law puts more burdens on some citizens than on others. Smoking bans put a heavier burden on smokers, shoplifting laws on kleptomaniacs etc. If we provide exemptions for laws which burden cultural, ethnic or religious groups, why not also for kleptomaniacs? And if we would do so, wouldn’t the whole construction of the rule of law tumble under the weight of exceptions? Of course it would, but that’s not the reasons why we limit exceptions or exemptions (one can argue that these are not the same, but I’ll bracket that for the moment) to those which protect group identity. As stated before, group identity – contrary to kleptomania or other possible reasons for exemptions – is deemed to be a very important value in liberal democracies, and important enough to override in some cases the other important value of equality before the law.
Citizens who do not belong to a group that has received an exemption to a general rule may complain that they are discriminated against, compared to the members of the group. These citizens may also want to opt out of the rule – for example a rule imposing military service – not for religious or cultural reasons, but for other reasons, and not necessarily for opportunistic reasons. Indeed, it may seem arbitrary to limit exemptions to cultural and religious groups. But we have to admit that such groups are more likely to suffer from special burden imposed by general rules, and that they are particularly important to the diversity of liberal societies.
4. Calcification of groups
Exemptions or the opt-out right require strict identification of group members. It must be possible to decide which individual citizens in a society are free to not respect a certain law, otherwise law enforcement becomes impossible. This may have consequences for the exit right. The state fixes group membership. Not only should the state not do such a thing, but it shouldn’t be done at all. The exit right is important, especially when we decide to allow controversial practices. And this right can be harmed if group composition is officially sanctioned.
Moreover, this strict identification of membership implies a simplification of human identity and group identity. Groups are often complex and internally contradictory. Opt-out rights fix not only membership but also group identity: the state decides once and for all, by granting a legal exemption for a certain practice, that this practice is typical of a group. Internal dissent within the group, and directed against the practice, is then stifled. The state has then sided with the most powerful factions within a group, and that’s not something a liberal state should do.
One could object to this objection by claiming that the “losers” of the internal struggle to determine the group’s identity still have the right to leave the group. However, that also isn’t a choice that the state should determine. It should allow dissenting group members – such as feminist Muslims or gay Catholics – to continue to dissent within the group, rather than impose the limited choice of either accepting the dominant doctrine of the group – a doctrine elevated to dominance with the help of the state and the opt-out right granted by it – or leave the group.
The effort to protect groups from external pressure can inadvertently promote internal pressure. In other words: the effort to protect a group from externally imposed change can stifle internally promoted change. By recognizing a practice as typical of a group and worthy of an exemption to a general rule, the state helps to cement this practice, perhaps against the wishes of minorities within the group that work against the practice.
It’s often difficult to tell if an exemption is demanded by a true group member for identity reasons, or by a wavering member for opportunistic reasons. Or, for that matter, by an individual who decided to join the group, not for substantial reasons but to escape the law.
I believe exemptions are sometimes justifiable, especially if the risk of harm created by the exemption is relatively small compared to the benefits for the groups enjoying the exemption. But there are many practical problems related to the decision whether or not to grant an exemption.