Year of Graduation


Level of Access

Open Access Thesis

Embargo Period


Department or Program

Government and Legal Studies

First Advisor

Paul Franco


The question of how liberal democracy should treat religion, and whether this can include offering religious exemptions to general laws, is highly contested. Religious exemptions highlight the difficulty of fairly singling out or treating specially a particular idea of “religion” in a system that promises to put aside controversial questions about the good life in order to have a fair and functioning system of government. Furthermore, the debate about religious exemptions exists within the context of the larger debate about the overall fairness of liberal democracy and the fairness of separating out any matters (including religion) from government. The fairness of exemptions rests upon the fairness of separating the public and private spheres in the first place. This thesis makes two contributions to this debate. Firstly, it places the issue of exemptions within the framework of the public/private and investigates a possible public reason for offering exemptions using a Rawlsian liberal framework. Since the public/private divide is somewhat flexible and evolving, exemptions should be offered not because we treat “religion” specially, but as one of many parts of a continual process of refining the separation between public and private realms. Secondly, the way exemption cases emerge in the U.S. context is shown to be about far more than just religion, but at the nexus of many debates about what areas of life ought to be within or beyond government control, including debates over the public or private nature of the market, corporations, and public schooling.

Available for download on Sunday, May 16, 2027