Monday, February 6, 2012

Special Caucus' and The Question of Accommodation

An article in today’s NY Times describes a conflict that arose in Las Vegas over a special Caucus held after sundown on Saturday in order to accommodate a growing population of Orthodox Jews. Caucus goers were required to sign a legal declaration under penalty of perjury that they could not attend the regular caucus because of their “religious beliefs.” Those who refused to sign the declaration were denied access to the caucus.

This incident provides a good example of how the Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause of the 1st Amendment are often at odds with each other. While holding the official caucus during the day, thus preventing Orthodox Jews from being able to participate could provide a valid argument for accommodation, it raises the question of what constitutes a valid excuse for missing regular elections, and how should they be accommodated. Does religion get a special pass or is it just one of many groups who should be accommodated? The focus on Orthodox Jews in regards to this special caucus also opens the door to questions of establishment. By primarily accommodating Orthodox Jews, did the Clark County Republican Party (CCRP), which ran the caucus in question, effectively raise Orthodox Judaism above other religions?

In the past the Supreme Court has been hesitant to rule in areas of religion, especially when the Free Exercise Clause is involved.  While free-exercise may be used as a defense, the declaration requirement, which explicitly limits attendance to those with a "religious excuse," places this issue squarely in establishment territory. Even though the CCRP argues that the declaration was meant to include Adventists as well, actions on the ground suggested otherwise. One person, who was refused admittance, claims that he was asked by a poll worker whether he was Jewish. More instances like this would be strong indicators of the CCRP’s true target audience. 

The question of other nonreligious groups, and whether they too are entitled to accommodation, is another interesting facet of this issue. Traditionally, religion has always been placed apart from everything else. The religious requirement of the special caucus calls into question the relationship of Religion in regards to other secular groups. Because this is an election, questions of disenfranchisement are also at stake, and the rights of secular groups are placed alongside those of Religions. As one of the fundamental principles of Democracy, voter’s rights are paramount to a truly representative government. To what extent should the government go to accommodate voters’ with either a “secular excuse” for missing a caucus, or for religious reasons, and are those truly separate types of accommodation?

1 comment:

Kyle I. said...

David, I believe you have articulated a very significant challenge to the idea that religious belief, and only religiously motivated belief, exempts you from adhering to civil law. Allowing for religious exemption privileges a belief or practice that can be backed up by a religious tradition, while disenfranchising those who hold similar personal convictions unconnected to the theology or ideology of any religious tradition. For instance, the Catholic church is arguing that they should not have to abide by President Obama's health care mandate that included mandatory contraceptive access for employees on the grounds that it violates Catholic doctrine. However, it would sound ridiculous if an employer, of his or her own opinion or accord and not motivated by religious belief, decided that he or she thought access to contraceptives was just wrong and refused to provide them to employees. The challenge then is in protecting the free exercise of religion while not privileging it.