Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

John Corvino


Religion is often singled out for special legal treatment in Western societies. This is certainly true in the United States where religion enjoys a special place in the First Amendment to the Constitution via the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. Through Free Exercise guarantees, for example, the Supreme Court held in Wisconsin v. Yoder that Amish children were entitled to an exemption from compulsory school attendance laws after the eighth grade, emphasizing that this was a uniquely religious exemption that did not apply to everyone. Moreover, those conscientiously objecting to contemporary vaccination laws may find themselves with varying protections depending on which US state they live in. For example, if both an Atheist and a Christian conscientiously object to the mandatory vaccine laws in New York, a legal exemption may be granted to the Christian but not the Atheist under New York’s current legal framework.

These cases and many like it raise an important question: what, if anything, is “special” about religious conscience beliefs that justifies their special legal treatment? In this dissertation, I argue that, because religious and nonreligious conscience beliefs are sufficiently similar in nature, there is no reason to treat them differently before the law. In this way, I offer an Egalitarian Response to the question about religion’s legal specialness. In the first chapter, I introduce a few historical discussions concerning religion’s specialness. In the second chapter, I develop and defend a broad account of ‘conscience’ against competing notions in order to navigate questions concerning the comparative features of religious and nonreligious conscience more effectively. In the third and fourth chapters, I analyze several possibly demarcating features of religious conscience beliefs taken to be legally relevant by theorists in the field. At the end of these chapters I conclude that, when compared to the nonreligious conscience, the religious conscience fails to possess sufficiently differentiating features so that comparative special legal treatment is warranted. In the fifth and final chapter, I field lurking objections to the Egalitarian Response.