Law, Religion, and Health in the United States

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Holly Fernandez Lynch, I. Glenn Cohen, Elizabeth Sepper
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     470 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This rich, diverse essay collection arose from a conference The Petrie-Flom Center for Bioethics at Harvard Law School. The essays address some of the major issues that have gone to the courts about the role of religious belief in health care, and provide a snapshot of a rapidly changing legal landscape that has shifted rules and regulations around religious belief and medical practice. The book's introduction indicates current social realities, new legal guidelines, and political mobilization, as factors that, especially since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, have been particularly salient. The introduction also explores the changing political and social realities around issues of the freedom of religious expression, the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and new health care laws make these issues at the intersection of medicine and religion especially salient. 

As with any collection of essays, this book is diverse. It is divided into nine subdivisions treating a wide variety of topics in religion and healthcare law, including sections on “Testing the Scope of Legal Protection in the Heath Care Context,” “Law, Religion, and Health Insurance,” and “Religion and LGBT Concerns.” Given the diversity and complexity of topics, the book defies a summary review. However, the book's introduction is a particularly helpful overview of the field as the whole at the present time, especially for non-legal specialists. It notes that there is an unchanging nature to some major issues including “balancing religious liberty against equality, health needs against spiritual commitments, oversight against autonomy, collective against individual” (17). 

What this convincingly reveals is the complexity of the issues around religion and health in changing healthcare and legal landscapes. For instance, how to balance the conscience rights of providers who see “abortion” or “assisted suicide” as “not healthcare” and immoral, with a patient's right to access these legal procedures if they deem them ethical and appropriate? What rights do religious organizations have to shape the insurance policies that they offer employees? What rights do religious organizations who run health care organizations have to use their religious beliefs to shape what services they offer? 

This book also reveals the importance of the Supreme Court's ideological composition when deciding cases, since there is a lack of clear constitutional rules for balancing the free exercise of religion and access to legal medical procedures for individuals in a pluralistic society who may or may not share the values of their providers. “Liberal” and “conservative” legal scholars view boundaries between freedom and exercise differently when it comes to applying them to health care providers and insurance policies. What rights do closely held family corporations have in providing healthcare insurance that violates their own religious beliefs? How do we balance religious objections to vaccines with the right to public health? 

This book is first and foremost of interest to students of law, lawyers, and those working at the intersection of law and religion. At the same time, its arguments are clear enough that those who are not lawyers—such as students of bioethics and theological ethics—will find this an enlightening contemporary survey of a complex legal landscape.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Holly Fernandez Lynch is executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, Massachusetts and a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics. She is the author of Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise (2008) and co-editor of Nudging Health: Health Law and Behavioral Economics (2016), FDA in the Twenty-First Century: The Challenges of Regulating Drugs and New Technologies (2015), and Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future (2014).

I. Glenn Cohen is a professor at Harvard Law School, Massachusetts and Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center. He is one of the world's leading experts on the intersection of bioethics and the law, as well as health law. He has authored or co-edited eight books and has published more than eighty articles in venues like The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Nature, and the Harvard Law Review.

Elizabeth Sepper is an associate professor at Washington University School of Law. She is an expert in health law and religious liberty law. She has written extensively on conscientious refusals to provide reproductive and end-of-life care, and conflicts between religion and antidiscrimination laws with articles in top law journals, including the Columbia Law Review, Virginia Law Review, and Indiana Law Journal.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments