American Atheist Home

Magazine Home

Print Edition

On Target!



Web Supplement

American Atheists

Flash Line


What's New


On Target


Web Posted June 27, 2020

Now that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the country's "people of faith" are suddenly showing their not-so-compassionate, not-so-warm 'n fuzzy combative side. The new leadership of the Christian Coalition has its work cut out with Ralph Reed moving onto greener pastures; no sooner had the decision in BOERNE v. FLORES been announced than the Pat Robertson-clone group began beating the drums for passage of the Religious Freedom Amendment in congress. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Orrin Hatch talked about metaphorical gauntlets, judicial activism and how religious belief was being ignominiously relegated to the fringes of American society.

But the near-universal lamentation over the demise of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is just so much hypocrisy and misdirection. RFRA had little to do with protecting the legitimate rights of religious groups or believers; most reasonable people, including most reasonable atheists, are aware that the First Amendment to the constitution does an adequate job of this, thank you, and that we should be wary of tinkering with the intent of the Founders on this delicate issue. RFRA was all about going beyond the legitimate grounds of religious freedom, though, in effect fostering a class of "special rights" for churches and sects, and endorsing the privileged position of religious belief.

"Given the choice between some poor sap trying to run a small business and a religious group which could pick up the phone for legal help from any number of eager advocacy groups, who do you think local and state government is going to pick on?"
In more blatant terms, the indignation over the BOERNE v. FLORES decision which ruled the RFRA unconstitutional amounts to a brash, belligerent assertion: to hell with you, pal, WE'RE a religion! We can do as we please, and the rest of you suckers have to obey the ever-growing and byzantine array of laws, rules and regulations that are sprouting up like weeds on the American cultural landscape. Tough luck, chumps!

No sooner had word of the high court's verdict reached the media than talking heads from organizations ranging from the National Council of Churches to religious-right advocacy groups began painting a gloomy, apocalyptic portrait of the status of religion in America post RFRA. Hyperbole and hysteria quickly became the operative principles in criticizing anti-RFRA decision. "Every religious person in America will be affected by this ruling," warned an NCC spokesman, while a mouthpiece from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty provided an Orwellian scenario of cops busting into to a first communion celebration because the kids were presumably drinking wine. An attorney for a Jewish group said that the court ruling "means that there's no realistic federal protection for religious believers anymore," a statement that makes one wonder exactly how churches and other groups managed to survive under so flimsy a guarantee as the First Amendment.

But the outcry against the RFRA decision is just so much hypocritical prattle, coming from a segment of the culture which has no right -- or certainly any cause -- to be up in arms about government intrusion, invasive laws, or not being the favorite. The American taxpayer already extends considerable largesse to organized religion in the form of enormous tax exemptions and indirect subsidies; as a consequence, churches now rank as some of the wealthiest institutions in the land. And talk about hypocrisy! Before Wednesday's unfavorable ruling, many religious groups were basking in the light of the AGOSTINI v. FELTON decision which critics fear will open up the floodgates of public funding and provide the churches, temples, mosques and other religious groups of the nation with a cornucopia of blank checks gratis the taxpayers. Who's grousing now? And more: before we start considering this talk about invasive government authority, let's ask which group in the society has done more to foster laws which invade our bedrooms, attempt to regulate what we might read, see, write, hear or publish, how we may spend our disposable income, whether or not a woman may have an abortion or access to birth control, or what may be taught in the schools. And these guys are talking about individuals rights and freedom from government tinkering?

All of a sudden, it seems that the nation's religious groups are behaving like members of the Libertarian Party, emphasizing personal freedoms and denouncing the government. That's just so much smoke and mirrors, though. The churches may be closing ranks on the general principle of free exercise of religion, but that is substantially different from taking a principled stand in defense of individual liberty, an ideological position which many religious groups have difficulty with.

Orrin Hatch, "The Senator from LDS," is vehement in defense of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and, presumably, the right of Native Americans to ingest peyote as long as this is part of religious exercise. Orrin is also one of the great drug warriors on Capitol Hill; the most that might be said about his ambivalent position is that it's OK for the courts and cops to kick in your front door and throw you into a privatized prison if you're using drugs for anything other than religious purposes. How's that for consistency?

"If we resent government in our churches, then maybe the churches should become a little more sensitive about using government to snoop in our bedrooms, invade our classrooms, or rob our pocketbooks..."
Or take the less extreme case in the town of Boerne, Texas, which is where the whole legal shoot-out over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act began last year. To paraphrase Justice John Paul Stevens; if you were an atheist in the town of Boerne, and owned an art gallery, you couldn't ask to be exempt from zoning codes, historical ordinances or other laws. But a church, mosque, temple, tent-revival, religious enclave or any other religious group could. Given the choice between some poor sap trying to run a small business and some religious group which could pick up the phone for legal help from any number of advocacy groups, who do you think local and state government is going to pick on?

On result from the BOERNE decision could be that religious groups may start to develop a little more common sense and empathy when it comes to appreciating what private individuals, businesses and groups deal with in the real world. There are plenty of legitimate gripes, for instance, that property owners have with a bewildering array of local, state and federal laws. Religious groups under RFRA had the choice of essentially choosing to pick which laws they may or may not choose to obey. The Archbishop in San Antonio could thumb his nose at the Boene zoning commission, while not giving a damn about that hypothetical atheist art gallery owner who's drowning in paperwork and building debris.

Not any more.

With RFRA gone, we're going to have a little more consistency in the American political scene. Religious groups will have to realize that they can no longer have it both ways. For instance, one result of Thursday's ruling is that in America's prisons, inmates will no longer be able to get special perks like growing long hair, or having access to certain materials, or eating special diets, or having conjugal visits, or having the "special rights" that don't apply to the rest of the inmates. All those Muslims who defended the idea of censoring Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses are now going to have a taste of their own medicine. Now, prison officials can comb through Islamic religious materials looking for what they don't like. Religious groups, leaders and congregation members will now presumably be subject to the same laws that the rest of us secular chumps are, for good or bad.

There are plenty of laws which need to debated, changed, even abolished. It used to be the case that if you were of royal blood, or part of an economic aristocracy, the "nuisance laws" which most people lived under didn't apply to you. If you had enough money, you could -- and often still can -- buy your way out of many laws and regulations that apply to those folks whose bank accounts are leaner than yours. OJ did. And it helps to have a last name like "Kennedy." And remember Prohibition, or even those pre-Roe v. Wade times when abortion was illegal? Money talked then, and for the very wealthy, those "morals-based" laws about booze and righteous behavior had little or no impact. It was off to Europe or Mexico or a private clinic to take care of an unwanted pregnancy, or in earlier days, a call to the neighborhood bootlegger -- or the nearest judge on the take, if you happened to be caught by Revenue Agents.

Presumably, we live in a society where laws are supposed to be enforced equally with no favorites. It doesn't always work out that way of course, but the theory is there. So, if in theory royalty and the well-off are subject to all of these laws, why should the religious be treated differently? Why shouldn't that church in Boerne, Texas have to deal with the same regulations and laws -- right or wrong -- that all those other folks in town, and every other municipality in the country, have to face on a daily basis?

Why should there be "special rights'' for believers? And why should there be a "special caste" of those who, on account of religion, are treated differently?

The decision overturning the RFRA didn't endanger religious liberty or belief. It leveled the field. It stated that churches, mosques, temples and other religious groups have to deal with the same laws and regulations as the rest of us.

A lot of those laws are unfair, burdensome, invasive and unjust -- my opinion -- but the solution isn't to bifurcate the society and have differing standards for different groups. If we resent government in our churches, then maybe the churches should become a little more sensitive about using government to snoop in our bedrooms, invade our classrooms, or rob our pocketbooks. Besides, religious groups have had a free ride for decades thanks to tax exemptions and indirect financial subsidies. With the reversal in the AGUILAR case, even more of the green stuff may be heading their way. That atheist gallery owner in Boene is still being hit every quarter to support the tax-exempt church down the street. And maybe there's a "decency group" meeting in that tax-exempt church which pays lip service to the evils of government intrusion, then wants the government to prevent that atheist gallery owner from displaying or selling "obscene" artwork.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was "bad law"; it was unnecessary, and created rather than solved problems. It fostered the myth that the First Amendment is unable to balance the interests of those who seek freedom of religion, with those of us who insist on freedom from religion. RFRA was enacted on the premise that there should be "special rights" for religious believers, exempting them from the laws, codes and regulations which everyone else -- from private individuals to secular groups, and, yeah, that atheist art gallery owner in Boene -- has to obey. Without the RFRA, it just isn't "high noon" for every church in Boene, Texas, or anywhere else. Churches got by before 1993, and they will survive after June 25, 2020.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.