Longtime BCC reader Carolyn is an attorney and religious liberty law enthusiast in California. She wrote an amicus brief in Holt v. Hobbs defending accommodations for religious prisoners.
Religious freedom advocates rejoice! The Supreme Court has issued its second major victory for religion this year. In January, it unanimously held in Holt v. Hobbs that it should be easier for religious prisoners to get religious accommodations in prison. Last week, it held 8-1 in EEOC v. Abercrombie that it should be easier for religious employees to get religious accommodations in the workplace.
Abercrombie’s facts are simple: A teenager interviewed with the clothes store Abercrombie while wearing a headscarf. Abercrombie assumed (correctly) that the teenager wore a headscarf because she was Muslim. Abercrombie didn’t want to grant a religious accommodation to its no-hats dress code, so it refused to hire her. The Supreme Court held that Abercrombie’s assumption was religious discrimination.
For the last decade, the Supreme Court has ruled for religion over and over again. Legal protections for religion in the United States have never been so strong. I hope this trend assuages the fears of our Church leaders. Defending religious freedom has been a priority for years, especially to Elder Oaks. Apostles travel the world, proclaiming religious freedom for both institutions and individuals. As Elder Hales explained last General Conference: “[T]he faithful use of our agency depends upon our having religious freedom.”
It’s a beautiful message. And yet, I am struck by how Elder Hales’s message resonates with both truth and irony. If we really believe agency is the foundational reason for why we need religious freedom (and I hope we do), than we as a Church have work to do.
Thirty years ago, the Church found itself on the opposite side of an Abercrombie-like dispute. It is a story largely unknown in the Church, except to odd Mormon lawyers like myself with a penchant for religion law. A Mormon man had worked for 16 years as a building engineer at Deseret Gymnasium, a public non-profit facility owned by the Church. In 1981 he lost his temple recommend, apparently because he failed to pay his tithing. The Church fired him. He responded by suing the Church for religious discrimination. The Church fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won: in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos, the Supreme Court held that under Title VII, religions have the right to discriminate on the basis of religion.
That decision has provided the backbone for numerous Church policy and employment decisions ever since. A divorcee applies to be a professor? Not hired. A married CES instructor gets pregnant? Fired.  A BYU student converts to Catholicism? Expelled.
Legally, the Church has every right to adopt those policies as reflections of its religious teachings. But as a moral question, are such rigid rules wise? While the Deseret News is reporting on the interfaith celebration of the Abercrombie decision, the Church itself still makes assumptions about members’ employability based on fixed religious criteria, and is hesitant to accommodate differences. Is that in tension with individual agency? Do the Church’s employment policies coerce individuals into complying with the Church’s doctrinal ideals, instead of empowering them to faithfully seek personal revelation?
Mormons are champions of religious liberty. That moral authority would be strengthened if we celebrated not only interfaith diversity (which we already do well), but also intra-faith diversity. Respecting agency – respecting religious freedom – should mean recognizing that even within the Church, individuals getting divorced, or being working moms, or exploring other faiths, can actually be God’s will.
 This specific policy changed last November. Others still exist.