Courts Can’t Rule on the Legitimacy of Religious Beliefs
Howard Slugh of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty has an article about the significance of this statement from the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision: “It hardly requires restating that government has no role in deciding or even suggesting whether the religious ground for Phillips’ conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate” (see my summary of the decision here, especially the similar comment from Justice Gorsuch).
Slugh explains that it did require restating because, he says, “Governmental entities have a nasty habit of refusing to protect religious practices that are, in their view, religiously mistaken or illegitimate.”
As an example, Slugh tells of a recent case where a prison was denying a Jewish prisoner the kosher food he required because, they argued, the prisoner was mistaken about what qualified as kosher. In this case, thankfully, the court rejected the prison’s argument:
The prison argued that Estes could not claim it had deprived him of religious liberty because the prison food was kosher enough to meet his religious needs. The prison rejected Estes’s claim that the food was not kosher. It responded that, based on its understanding of Judaism, the food was kosher. The prison even hired a rabbi to testify that Estes misunderstood his faith. Estes hired his own rabbi to testify that the prison was not, in fact, properly preparing kosher food.
It should be immediately obvious that this sort of religious debate has no place in an American court. Judges are not qualified to determine which rabbi speaks for the only “True Judaism,” if such a thing even exists. And, even more important, the law would protect Estes’s right to religious liberty even if his personal faith differed from normative Judaism. Every American has a right to live in accordance with his conscience, regardless of whether he follows an orthodox faith.
Fortunately, the court saw through the prison’s nonsense. It decided that, for the purposes of Estes’s religious-liberty claim, the relevant question was whether eating the prison food would violate his own sincere religious beliefs. The court recognized that it had no business attempting to discover and apply the “true” Jewish law.
This is a step forward. Slugh cites past instances where courts denied religious liberty claims on the grounds that they thought the person’s beliefs were incorrect: “Since the court decided that the owner’s complicity would not be sinful, it saw no need to even consider granting a religious exemption.”
I wrote a few years ago that I expected to see just this kind of argument used against Christians in the future — that is, something like this: Christianity can, and is currently, being interpreted by some to be affirming of same-sex marriage, therefore same-sex marriage is compatible with Christianity, and it’s not restricting a person’s Christian practice to require him or her to participate in affirming same-sex marriage. But of course, what “some Christians” believe is irrelevant. Conscience-based objections depend entirely on the conscience of the person objecting! That’s not something someone else can judge. The reasoning we find in the Masterpiece decision could bring this kind of argument against religious liberty to a halt, and that is very good news.
The Supreme Court’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop did not resolve the tension between the First Amendment and anti-discrimination laws. That is disappointing. However, it still may have done adherents of minority faiths a great service in reminding governmental entities that they have “no role” in determining the validity of their sincere beliefs.
If the First Amendment doesn’t protect views that others find distasteful and false, then what on earth is it for? That’s its whole reason for existing! The fact that any court disagrees with a religious belief is irrelevant and should not enter into its decision to protect a person’s right to believe and practice it.
Originally published at Stand to Reason. Reprinted with permission.