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Why tolerance of religion is not enough

With millions fleeing religious-related violence, protection of peaceful religious expression requires active, evenhanded work by judges and elected officials. Free countries must set a model of cool, calm balancing of freedom of religion and compelling public needs. 

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Samantha Elauf, right, stands with her mother Majda Elauf outside the Supreme Court in Washington Feb. 25, the day of oral arguments in the daughter's case. The justices suggested they may side with Ms. Elauf, who didn't get hired by retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a black headscarf that conflicted with the company's dress code.

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With calm and respectful questions, the nine justices of the US Supreme Court debated yet another case about religious freedom on Wednesday. This one involved a Muslim woman who was not hired by a company because she wore a head scarf. Should the company have asked her why she wore it, perhaps illegally probing her religious beliefs? Or should the woman have told the interviewer she wants an accommodation for wearing a black hijab, despite a company rule against wearing headgear and the color black?

Just how the high court decides the case in coming months may be less important than the fact that the oral arguments were polite and, most of all, nonthreatening. Any judge must weigh principles, precedents, and the particulars of each case. If the justices threw any barbs during this session, it was in pithy comments like this one from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about when companies can discriminate in hiring: “They don’t have to accommodate a ball cap. They do have to accommodate a yarmulke.”

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The world needs more examples these days of judicious ways of resolving disputes between the right to religious expression and the demands for justice and the common good. US courts have taken many cases in this area in recent years, especially related to the Affordable Care Act’s impingement on religious practices. And lawmakers in the United States and other countries are debating more measures aimed at balancing religious freedom and any compelling public need as defined by an elected government.

The reason to elevate such debates is clear: The world now has more than 50 million people displaced by violence – the most since World War II – with most of them having fled conflicts that involve disputes over religion, such as in Syria, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar (Burma). Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that violence and discrimination against religious groups by governments or rival faiths have reached a new high in all regions except the Americas.

Atrocities against people of faith, or in the name of a faith, demand something stronger than tolerance. A person’s religious actions and search for truth demand high respect and protection. More leaders must be active rather than passive in preventing coercion of religious expression.

A good example is a Feb. 17 speech by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After some chiding by President Obama, he promised that his government would not allow any religious group to foment violence against another. “Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” Mr. Modi said. He even summoned the head of police for New Delhi to express his concern about recent attacks on Christians.

Tolerance is a worthy value. But as Stanford law professor Michael McConnell explained in a Yale Law Journal article, government’s role is to protect the “full and free” exercise of religion while not making theological judgments. “Toleration presupposes a ‘dominant group’ with a particular opinion about religion (that it is ‘false,’ or at least ‘unwarranted’), who decide not to ‘eradicate’ beliefs they regard as ‘wrong, mistaken, or undesirable.’ ”

Like courts in most free countries, the US Supreme Court has been careful not to pass judgment on any religion. And in each case, it tries to carefully navigate boundaries between religious expression and public needs. Such cool and calm consideration is a badly needed balm for the kind of fiery violence over religion in much of the world.