The War on Religious Liberty

The War on Religious Liberty

II. Religious Liberty in the U.S.

Religious persecution is intensifying around the globe. The nonpartisan  Pew  Research  Center  reports  that the number  of nations with “high” or “very high” restrictions on religion increased 43% during the decade of 2007 to 2016, from 58 countries to 83.(3) The number of countries persecuting Christians increased 35%, from 107 countries to 144. The number of countries persecuting Muslims increased 56%, from 91 countries to 142, and the number of countries persecuting Jews increased 64%, from 53 countries to 87.(4)

Christians  are  the  world’s  most  persecuted  religious  group. The  International  Society  for  Human  Rights,  a  secular NGO based in Frankfurt, estimated in 2009 that Christians were the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world.(5)  The  Pew Research  Center reports  that  Christians were the  most  persecuted  religious group  in  the  world  every  year from 2007 to 2016.(6)  Open Doors USA, a ministry that supports persecuted Christians around the world, reports that the number of  Christians  persecuted  by the  top  50  countries  on  its World Watch List increased 14% from 2018 to 2019, from 215 million to 245 million.(7)

Open  Doors  reports  that  1  in  9  Christians  experiences  high levels  of  persecution  worldwide.(8) Christians around  the  world are  brutally  persecuted,  facing  imprisonment,  torture,  and even death. Eleven Christians are killed each day in the top 50 countries on Open Doors’ World Watch List.(9) Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians around the world is almost completely ignored by the media and human rights organizations.(10)

In the United States, three provisions in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights protect religious liberty. The First Amendment’s Free  Exercise  Clause  forbids  Congress  from  making  any  law prohibiting the free exercise of religion(11).   The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause forbids Congress from establishing an official religion  in  the  United  States,  or favoring  one  religion over  another.(12) The No  Religious  Test  Clause  of  Article  VI, Clause  3  forbids  the  use  of  religious  tests  as  a qualification for  public  office.(13)   These  provisions  reflect  the  high  value  the Founders placed on religious liberty. As James Madison wrote, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”(14)

Freedom   of   religious   belief   is   absolute   under   the   First Amendment.(15) As  the  U.S.  Supreme  Court  wrote  in  Sherbert v. Verner (1963), “the door  of  the  free  exercise  clause  stands tightly closed against any governmental regulation of religious ”(16)  “Government   may   neither   compel   affirmation   of a   repugnant   belief,(17) nor   penalize   or   discriminate   against individuals   or   groups   because   they   hold   religious   views abhorrent to the authorities.” 18  Furthermore, “government may not  employ  the  taxing  power  to  inhibit  the  dissemination  of particular religious views.”(19)

Although  freedom  of  religious  belief  is  absolute,  the  free exercise of religion is subject to regulation for the protection of society.(20) The Free Exercise Clause does not protect terrorism, for example, even if the terrorism is founded on religious belief. Nevertheless, government regulation of free exercise may not unduly infringe the protected freedom.(21)

Before 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the free exercise of religion was a “fundamental right” (22) and granted it the highest level  of  constitutional  protection,  known  as  “strict  scrutiny” protection.(23)  Under  strict  scrutiny,  the  government  may  not hinder or burden the exercise of a fundamental right unless the government action is necessary and narrowly tailored to accomplish a compelling governmental purpose.(24) Therefore, although the free exercise of religion is not absolute, it received formidable protection under strict scrutiny.

Three religious liberty cases illustrate strict scrutiny protection. In  Cantwell  v.  Connecticut  (1940),(25) the  state  of  Connecticut could not require Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain a government certificate in order to distribute literature and solicit contributions. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972),(26) the state of Wisconsin could not compel Amish children to attend high school in violation of Amish religious beliefs. In Sherbert v. Verner (1963),(27) the state of South Carolina  could  not  deny unemployment  benefits  to  a  Seventh Day Adventist  because  she  refused  to  work  on  Saturday,  the Sabbath in her religion.

In 1990, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed direction and  removed  strict  scrutiny  protection  from  religious liberty in Employment Division v. Smith (1990).(28)  Like Sherbert v. Verner (1963),  Smith  involved  the  denial  of  unemployment  benefits. Alfred  Smith  and  Galen  Black  were  members  of  the  Native American   Church.  They  ingested   peyote,   a   hallucinogenic drug,  for  sacramental  purposes  at  a  church  ceremony.  Their employer, a private drug rehabilitation organization, fired them for ingesting the peyote.

Oregon  law  denied  unemployment  benefits  to  employees discharged    for   work-related    misconduct.    When    Oregon denied  unemployment  benefits  to  Smith  and  Black,  the  two men argued that Oregon’s denial of benefits violated their free exercise rights under the First Amendment. They argued that the  Oregon  statute  was  unconstitutional  under  the  Supreme Court’s opinion in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), which applied strict scrutiny protection to the free exercise of religion and reversed South Carolina’s denial of unemployment benefits to a Seventh Day Adventist.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in Employment Division  v.  Smith  (1990),  abandoned  the  rule  established  in Cantwell  v.  Connecticut  (1940),(29)   Wisconsin  v.  Yoder  (1972),(30) and   Sherbert  v.  Verner  (1963)(31)     and   removed   constitutional strict  scrutiny  protection  from  religious  liberty.(32)  Scalia  ruled that  states  enforcing  laws  that  substantially  burden  the  free exercise of religion no longer need to meet the strict scrutiny test and prove that the state laws are necessary and narrowly tailored  to  achieve  a  compelling governmental interest.  States only need to show that the law is not specifically directed to the religious practice. The  Free  Exercise  Clause  does  not  protect religious freedom from laws that incidentally forbid an act the religious belief requires.

Why did Scalia remove strict scrutiny protection from the free exercise of religion? Scalia wrote that applying strict scrutiny to religious liberty would “court anarchy:”

Moreover, if “compelling interest” really means what it says (and watering it down here would subvert  its  rigor  in  the  other  fields  where  it is  applied),  many laws will not  meet  the  test. Any society adopting such a system would be courting  anarchy,  but  that  danger  increases in  direct  proportion  to  the  society’s  diversity of  religious  beliefs,  and  its  determination  to coerce or suppress none of them.”(33)

Congress overwhelmingly disagreed with Scalia’s assessment that strict scrutiny protection for religious liberty “courts anarchy.” Congress  established  a  statutory  strict  scrutiny  protection  to religious  liberty  in  the  Religious  Freedom  Restoration  Act  of 1993 (RFRA).(34)  RFRA passed by a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives and a vote of 97-3 in the Senate.(35) The Religious Freedom  Restoration Act  provides  that  “Government  shall not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion,” unless it “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and is  the  “least  restrictive  means  of  furthering  that  compelling governmental interest.” (36)

Unfortunately,  RFRA  only  provides statutory  protection to religious  liberty,  not  constitutional protection.  Progressives  in  Congress are  currently  attempting  to remove RFRA’s  statutory strict  scrutiny protection  of  religious  liberty  with the  so-called  “Equality  Act.”(37) This bill,  which   passed   the   House   of Representatives   on   May   17, 2019, prohibits  discrimination  based  on sex,   sexual  orientation,   and   gender identity. The bill prohibits an individual from being denied access to a shared facility,  including  a  restroom,  a  locker  room,  and  a  dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s “gender identity.” This bill is designed to deny the religious liberty of those who would deny such access on religious grounds. Section 1107 of the proposed “Equality Act” specifically prohibits religious liberty defenses under RFRA.

Although   Employment   Division   v.   Smith   (1990)   removed constitutional  strict  scrutiny  protection  from  religious  liberty, a  liberty  expressly  guaranteed  in  the  First  Amendment,  the U.S.  Supreme  Court  has  extended  constitutional strict  scrutiny protection to rights not included in the Bill of Rights, including a  fundamental  right  to  abortion(38) and  gay marriage.(39)  The Progressive  movement,  encouraged  by  the decision  in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), has intensified its   attacks   on   religious   liberty.   The   motives and methods employed in these attacks are described below.


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