Report: Extension of religious exemptions undermining the law

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The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is hosting a live streaming service with an empty audience in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some states have requested exemptions for churches from the rules governing public gatherings during the health crisis. File photo by Kevin Dietsch / UPI | License photo

November 26 (UPI) – A new report argues that the right to religious exemptions from the law – such as those that allowed medical professionals to refuse to provide contraceptive care and a calligraphy company to refuse to sell wedding invitations to couples in same sex – has grown considerably in the last decade and threatens the freedoms of others.

Denominational exemptions involve more than reproductive health and LGBTQ issues, according to the Law, Rights, and Religion Project report at Columbia Law School in New York City. The report says some states have passed or proposed bills that include a broader right to religious exemptions than that provided by the US Constitution.

“By citing real cases, we demonstrate that almost any law or policy, including those protecting critical interests such as workers’ rights, public health, environmental protection, emergency response, and religious pluralism , may be limited and / or significantly compromised by religious exemptions. the political think tank said in the report, released earlier this month.

The report says the state’s most ambitious bills are modeled on the federal Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, which prohibits the government from substantially increasing the exercise of a person’s religion except in the pursuit of a compelling government interest and only if an action is the least restrictive means of promoting that interest.

South Dakota and Montana passed the RFRAs this year, and Arkansas will vote on a referendum in 2022 that would enshrine RFRA-style language into the state’s constitution, according to the report. Efforts to pass the RFRAs are expected in other states over the next few years.

More restricted bills providing religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other public health laws are also expected.

“Those who have long sounded the alarm about the risks of overly broad exemptions often trot a so-called ‘parade of horrors.’ An extended right to exemptions, they say, could allow religious faithful to ignore it. countless civil and even criminal laws, ”the report says.

Cat food, pasta strainer

The requested exemptions listed in the report – some of which have been authorized and others rejected by the courts – include paying less than minimum wage; exclude employees from being protected by anti-discrimination laws because they are considered “ministers”; deny jobs, housing and services to certain categories of people, including religious minorities and LGBTQ people; allow parents to refuse necessary medical care for their children because of their religious beliefs; and grant religious colleges exemptions from the requirement to recognize unions.

So far, no state has granted spouses the religious right to force their partners into a “biblical” or binding covenant marriage or to claim a faith-based right to engage in serious crimes, says The report. He gives as an example a defendant who said he was a follower of “creationist naturism” and unsuccessfully argued that his post of a naked child on Pinterest was religious in nature.

The report says some requests for exemptions are confusing, citing a Florida man who said he has a religious obligation to eat cat food in the workplace and a Massachusetts woman who wanted to express his identity nun by carrying a pasta strainer on her head in her driver’s license. Photo.

(A federal judge ruled that the man’s personal religious belief regarding Kozy Kitten cat food was mere personal preference that was not constitutionally protected. After some legal wrangling between the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association, the one woman, a member of the lay Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and self-proclaimed Pastafarian, was allowed to carry the colander in her photo.)

“While not necessarily damaging, such claims underscore the challenges of a regime in which religious exemptions are too often seen as a license to step outside of any law or policy imaginable,” the report said.

Protect religious minorities

The report indicates that some exemptions are justified.

“Religious exemptions have also been used, for example, to ensure that incarcerated people have access to kosher and halal foods; that schoolchildren and members of the military should be able to wear religious headgear and headdress; and that members of small religious groups, including indigenous religions, are not prosecuted for ritualistic use of substances such as hoasca and peyote, ”the report said.

Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, which advocates separation of church and state, notes that when Congress passed the RFRA in 1993, the law was intended to protect religious minorities.

“American atheists opposed this law because we predicted that it would be used to grant unfair preferences based on religion – and we were right,” Fish said in a statement.

Religious extremists have used exemptions to undermine efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, he says.

“In Arkansas, Oklahoma and Arizona, they worked to pass bills that would give churches exemptions from large gathering bans, turning churches into super-spray sites and putting all residents at risk,” he said. declared Fish. “And in two Supreme Court cases, a court filled with religious ideologues agreed, exempting churches from common sense restrictions on the size of in-person meetings.”

To stop the bills before they reach the courts, American Atheists has launched state defense teams in Oklahoma, Virginia and Florida and plans to start more in 2022, the statement said.

Former Kansas State Representative Brett Parker is leading the teams, which will work to defend civil rights and the separation of religion and government, the statement said. Teams are also being set up in Colorado and California, he said.

Public health orders, especially those related to COVID-19, are a common target of religious exemption requests, Parker told UPI.

“People are calling for religious exemptions from something as simple as wearing a mask,” he said. “It becomes like the no-get-out card. If you can apply for a religious exemption, then it’s almost like it infers that no restrictions or laws should be enforced.”

Parker said he would follow the legislation with the help of teams and partner organizations. Work will intensify in January, when state legislatures enter into session, he said.

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