The Supreme Court has decided in favor of religious liberty in several headliner cases in recent months — starting with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and other challenges to Obamacare regulations. Last week, the Court ruled that a Muslim inmate in Arkansas can keep his beard. As I’ve said before, any triumph of liberty is reason for us all to celebrate. But, it’s not a good sign that the highest court in the land has to defend religious freedom again and again.
Someone isn’t getting the message.
The trend is due to the government and its legions of employees arbitrarily restricting the exercise of religious liberty. Anyone who’s been involved in litigation knows “you’ll have your year in court.” It usually takes several appeals, much money, and lots of determination to rectify the wrongs that the government inflicts. Often this happens against small religious groups with little political clout, hence posing less risk for the government to ignore key laws or even the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom.
Multiple unanimous decisions rejecting government restrictions on religious freedom are sending a stern message to lower courts, but the Supreme Court cases hopefully will encourage other government agencies to stop limiting religious liberty in similar ways.
Eric Rassbach, from the Becket Fund, which just won the Holt v. Hobbs prisoner rights case, notes that “these unanimous victories are a sign of, essentially, extreme government intolerance when facing its religious citizens.” The Court’s responses are getting predictable — and rightly so. Some of these cases are so blatant that Court opinion could essentially be summed up in four words: “Are you kidding me?”
Conflict between government regulation and religious activity arises when government regulation expands. Rassbach explains:
New conflicts most frequently arise when the sphere of government activity expands: government seeks to exercise more comprehensive control over a field of human endeavor where religious people have already long been active. For example, the recent rash of litigation over the contraception mandate arose because the federal government sought to expand its control over the healthcare plans of religious organizations in a way it had never done before.
As the cloud of government regulations grows larger, a bloated government becomes increasingly bold in their attempts to restrict free speech and free exercise of one’s faith. Rassbach predicts, “since the trend of the expansion of government activity at all levels — federal, state, and local — shows no sign of abating, we can expect more religious liberty conflicts in coming years.”
That’s the bad news. The good news? The government keeps losing.
The Supreme Court has revealed the government’s “extreme litigation positions” in religion cases for all to see. In the Holt case, the prison plainly asked the court to defer to the prison’s decision because judges in the “calm serenity of judicial chambers” couldn’t possibly understand the situation. The Court point-blank called the federal government’s defense in Hosanna-Tabor “extreme,” “untenable,” and a “remarkable view.”
These recent victories will have positive impacts not only on other religious liberty claims, but also cases of free speech infringement and government intrusion.
Rassbach concludes his comments on Holt v. Hobbs with these words:
[T]his decision heralds a new period of rigorous enforcement of federal civil rights statutes concerning religious practices. Governments would do well to take note and seek to accommodate religious practices whenever possible. And religious individuals and institutions should take heart: religious liberty is alive and well in America.
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