Beyond the conflict: Religion in the public sphere and deliberative democracy

Res Publica 15 (3):251-267 (2009)
Abstract
Traditionally, liberals have confined religion to the sphere of the ‘private’ or ‘non-political’. However, recent debates over the place of religious symbols in public spaces, state financing of faith schools, and tax relief for religious organisations suggest that this distinction is not particularly useful in easing the tension between liberal commitments to equality on the one hand, and freedom of religion on the other. This article deals with one aspect of this debate, which concerns whether members of religious communities should receive exemptions from regulations that place a distinctively heavy burden on them. Drawing on Habermas’ understanding of churches as ‘communities of interpretation’, we explore possible alternatives to both the ‘rule-and-exemption’ approach and the ‘neutralist’ approach. Our proposal rests on the idea of mutual learning between secular and religious perspectives. On this interpretation, what is required is (i) the generation and maintenance of public spaces in which there could be discussion and dialogue about particular cases, and (ii) evaluation of whether the basic conditions of moral discourse are present in these spaces. Thus deliberation becomes a touchstone for the building of a shared democratic ethos.
Keywords Neutrality  Religious beliefs  Religious exemption  Deliberative democracy  Discourse ethics  Public sphere
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