Free free, set them free

3 03 2014

I’ve banged on and on and on on the necessity of one law for all. Not this time.

In the interest of not repeating myself on purpose (I do enough of it by accident), I’m not going to outline yet again why broad religious exemptions from laws of general applicability are a bad idea, and simply jump to the conclusion: Religious institutions and their affiliates which hire and treat/educate/work with solely their fellow co-religionists? Fine: clear First Amendment exemption. Places of general accommodation? Nuh-uh.

Anyway, these proposed laws based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs” seem like a very bad idea for a very basic reason: who the hell is to determine what is a “sincerely held religious belief” and how is it to be determined?

Courts generally don’t want to have to deal with this, not least because they don’t want to be in the position of having a government body determining what is a religion, much less sincerely held beliefs about them. Yes, there are cases in which this occurs—conscientious objectors from the draft, IRS tax-exempt status, rights of prisoners—but beyond that, not so much.

More to the point, if I sue you for denial of service and you claim a s.h.r.b. defense, then my attorney is going to question you about your beliefs, how consistent you are in their application, your level of knowledge about your religion, and on an on. State legislators might think they’re handing you a get-out-of-court-free card, but if you get that card due solely to the sincerity of your belief, well then, that gives me incentive to challenge both the sincerity and the belief.

If you are in any way inconsistent—which is to say, human—it’s just possible that a jury of your peers will find that you don’t, in fact, believe what you say you believe. And even if you win, you and your beliefs will in the process have come under sustained official scrutiny.

It’s tough to see how that in any way advances the cause of religious liberty.

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