Of Slaves, Quakers, And Nuns: The Importance Of Religious Exemptions

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Later this week, in the same room where President Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, my colleagues at the Civil Rights Commission and I will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Amendment ended slavery and freed my own ancestors and those of millions of other Americans

Slavery is recognized as the most grievous and costly wrong of our nation’s early history. The lives of hundreds of thousands ended, and the nation almost broke apart — in large part — because our founders wrongly allowed it to continue. It is perhaps less well-known that the eventual solution for this wrong arose from an aspect of liberty they got quite right: religious exemptions. It was due to the presence of the Quakers that America’s abolition movement began, strengthened, and eventually succeeded with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

It was, however, no foregone conclusion that the Quakers would be around to fight against slavery in the 1800s. Indeed, the first two Quaker missionaries to arrive in Massachusetts in the 1650s were thrown into prison, had their books burned, and were thrown out of the colony. Even in friendlier states, Quakers still ran into the type of problem that occasionally arises in a religiously diverse democracy: sometimes the majority will require citizens to do something that the religious minority cannot do without violating their religion.

For the Quakers, the problem arose concerning mandatory military service. From time to time, colonial governments would require all able-bodied men to serve in the militia. Quakers generally refused — they said that God forbade them from killing, and that included killing in the military.

At that point, colonial governments faced an important decision — one that would have unforeseen consequences for the fight against slavery. Governments could either imprison and punish the Quakers, or they could find a way to work around the Quakers’ good faith religious objection by granting them an exemption from military service.

Some governments initially took a hard-line position, putting Quakers in jail and confiscating their property. Others (including the Confederate government) offered the Quakers a fake “accommodation” — they later could get out of military service only if they would pay another person to kill in their place. Unsurprisingly, Quakers generally objected just as much to helping the war effort by finding a substitute.

Over time, however, colonial governments and later state and federal governments arrived at the better approach to religious liberty. They realized that Quakers were principled citizens, and that there were plenty of ways to help without serving in the militia — like growing crops or tending the sick. These governments ultimately embraced true diversity, and gave the Quakers a religious exemption rather than putting them in prison for their beliefs. To this day, our modern military continues to offer conscientious objector status to those whose deeply-held religious beliefs (or even deeply-held non-religious beliefs) prohibit them from fighting.

No one did any of this in order to help the slaves. But the consequence of granting the Quakers a religious exemption is that they survived to petition the early Congress to end slavery, to start anti-slavery societies, and to help build and run the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves seeking freedom.

Another religious group who helped former slaves is the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Little Sisters arrived just after the Civil War, and their homes for the elderly took care of elderly, poor former slaves when other homes would not. The Little Sisters continue that ministry today, taking care of the elderly poor in about 30 homes across the country, and doing so without regard to race or religion.

This spring, the Supreme Court will hear the Little Sisters’ court case about religious exemptions. Like the early Quakers, the Little Sisters face a government that is trying to force them to do something their religion forbids, in their case providing contraceptives to their employees. And like some of the stingier governments in the colonies and the Confederacy, the federal government is offering only a false “accommodation” — it will only let the Sisters off the hook if they provide a substitute who will give out contraceptives for them. What the Sisters need, however, is what the Quakers needed: a true religious exemption that allows them to continue to live according to their faith and to continue doing the wonderful work that they do.

Hundreds of years ago our governments realized that punishing Quakers for peacefully following their religion was a bad policy. Centuries later, the abolition of slavery emphasized the value to the nation — even to the non-Quakers and non-religious people in the nation—of giving the Quakers an exemption. Hopefully our government today is smart enough to recognize that it doesn’t really need nuns to give out contraceptives, and that religiously-inspired, principled people, like the Little Sisters, make important contributions to our society that we cannot easily replace.

Peter Kirsanow, a member of the UW Commission on Civil Rights and former member of the National Labor Relations Board, is a lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio. The statements do not necessarily represent the views of the Commission.