Exemptions: Necessary, Justified, or Misguided?

Exemptions: Necessary, Justified, or Misguided?


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Should laws apply equally to everyone, or should some individuals and organizations be granted exemptions because of conflicting religious or moral convictions? In recent years, this question has become intensely controversial in America. The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, in particular, has provoked barbed debates about legal exemptions. At the core of these debates lies the question of whether basic values of equality and nondiscrimination are at odds with the right to live according to one’s religious beliefs.

In Exemptions: Necessary, Justified, or Misguided? Kent Greenawalt draws on his extensive expertise to place same-sex marriage and other controversies within a broader context. Avoiding oversimplification and reflecting a balanced consideration of competing claims and harms, he offers a useful overview of various types of exemptions and the factors that we should take into account when determining the justice of a particular exemption.

Through a close study of several cases, from doctors who will not perform abortions to institutions that do not pay taxes, Greenawalt demonstrates how to weigh competing values without losing sight of practical considerations like the difficulty of implementing a specific law. This thoughtful guide to exemptions will prove an invaluable resource as America struggles to come to terms with Obergefell v. Hodges, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and similar controversies. Exemptions shows how to reach the most just and desirable legal conclusions by respecting those who wish to live according to different fundamental values.


Jurisprudence | Law | Legal History




Harvard University Press


Cambridge, MA


“Greenawalt, in this readable, informative, in-depth study, probes the under-researched area of government exemptions. The author’s primary focus is the basic underlying reasons for deciding to grant exemptions and determining their scope. Greenawalt persuasively illustrates, beyond recent controversial headlines, how to weigh competing values favoring or opposing exemptions from historical, comparative, and critical perspectives. Readers of Greenawalt’s work will have the tools necessary to analyze today’s controversies resulting from Obergefell v. Hodges and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The connecting thread between granting or opposing an exemption is Greenawalt’s contention that serious reflection on what should be done requires recognition of actual competing considerations and genuine concern for fellow citizens who differ from others in significant ways.”
J. M. Trayhan, Choice

“This book deserves a good deal of attention. Like all of Greenawalt’s work, Exemptions is clear, careful, and superbly parsed.”
Paul Horwitz, University of Alabama School of Law

“The qualities that make Greenawalt so universally and strongly admired are on full display here – thoughtfulness, mastery of detail, deep empathy for competing positions, and clear writing. This will be an important book, not only in the fraught present but also in the calmer future.”
Nelson Tebbe, Brooklyn Law School


Also available as an eBook through the Columbia University Libraries.

Exemptions: Necessary, Justified, or Misguided?

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