You might remember that a number of atheists, religious progressives, and women’s health advocates had some concerns about allowing an employer’s beliefs about women’s healthcare to determine what kind of coverage they offered, and what that might portend for religious freedom and the law in general.
You might also remember that the Supreme Court did it anyway, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
And don’t forget people insisting that it was not really problematic (and certainly not a blow to women’s rights!) because it was so “limited in scope.” Or the Supreme Court’s decision the very next day that expanded the ruling.
Turns out that ruling wasn’t such a limited decision after all, and Justice Ginsburg may have been onto something when she referred to it as “a decision of startling breadth.”
Ben Winslow reports:
… [District Court Judge David Sam] has ruled that a member of the Fundamentalist LDS Church does not have to answer questions about child labor violations because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case.
The individual in question is Vergel Steed (or Vernon Steed — his name appears both ways in the ruling), who refused “to answer even the most basic questions in a recent deposition, because he is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The questions were part of a case pertaining to the suspected removal of children from school by FLDS leaders in order to compel the kids to work in FLDS fields. Hundreds of children had been seen at work in pecan field in 2012 (rather than attending school).
In this case, the federal government is suing the town governments of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., alleging they are de facto arms of the FLDS Church and its leader, Warren Jeffs.
(Yes, that Warren Jeffs — the one currently in prison, after being convicted in 2011 of “one count each of aggravated sexual assault, a first-degree felony, and sexual assault, a second-degree felony.”) The government believes Steed should be required to give testimony on the issue. U.S. Magistrate Judge Evelyn Furst agreed. But Steed’s attorney, Jason Haymore, argued that his client was not obliged to give testimony, as he “retains a closely held religious belief that requires him not to speak openly about matters regarding the Church organization with anyone outside of his religious affiliation.” Judge Sam was persuaded.
“It is not for the Court to “inquir[e] into the theological merit of the belief in question,” Sam wrote, citing the Hobby Lobby decision. “The determination of what is a ‘religious’ belief or practice is more often than not a difficult and delicate task …. However, the resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
Just as believing inaccurate religious nonsense about contraception is a perfectly valid reason to decide an employee’s health plan shouldn’t cover it — not because it’s an opinion founded in fact, but because it’s religious — claiming to have a belief against talking about Church related matters means you don’t have to do. Because it’s a religious belief.
Citing the Hobby Lobby decision again, Judge Sam further noted
Petitioner has failed to show that forcing Mr. Steed to answer the questions offensive to his sincerely held religious beliefs is the least restrictive means to advance any compelling interest it may have.
This ruling, if it stands, illustrates the “startling breadth” of a decision that essentially elevated the “sincerely held” religious beliefs of some above the secular laws of the land and the interests of the citizenry. It has set up a special standard, by which religious persons can excuse themselves from any number of legal obligations by pleading a religious belief. Instead of the usual expectation — that the law applies equally to all — it then falls on the government to prove that the law is not too restrictive on the sensibilities of the religious person, before all else.
This is not freedom. This is a special privilege, by and for the religious.