The Hobby Lobby case, where the US Supreme court ruled that under some vaguely defined circumstances, owners of companies had right to impose their religious views as company policies as if the companies were individuals under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), was widely predicted to open up a Pandora’s box with others seeking similar exemptions from following the law because of their ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’.
It happened in the case of a member of a breakaway Mormon church who refused to reveal the names of his church leaders in a labor dispute, even though he had received a subpoena.
A judge ruled that a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is exempted from testifying in a child labor investigation, citing the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision in his ruling.
Judge David Sam ruled last week that forcing FLDS member Vergel Steed to reveal the identity of FLDS church leaders, the organizational structure of the church or information about its internal affairs would be a “substantial burden” on his free exercise of religious beliefs. The decision came down last week, but emerged in widespread public circulation Tuesday.
The decision stems from an investigation into possible labor violations during a harvest at an FLDS pecan ranch in Utah in which children and adults may have worked without pay.
In his ruling, Sam cited the 2014 case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., in which the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation can be exempt from a law—in that case, the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers pay for contraception—that its owners sincerely object to on religious grounds if there is any less restrictive means of achieving the law’s ends. Sam found that prosecutors had other means of getting the information they sought from Steed and thus that he was exempt from testifying.
You can read the judge’s ruling here. Interestingly, neither Vergel Steed nor the US Department of Labor, the contending parties in this case, raised RFRA when the case was initially heard before a magistrate. The issue came up only when it was referred to the district court. Judge Sam who decided that it constitutes the relevant standard for adjudicating such cases.
The idea that someone could object to questioning under a subpoena because of their religious beliefs opens up a whole new area of controversy.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of UC-Irvine School of Law, said Sam’s decision reveals the pitfalls of Hobby Lobby, calling it “stunning” and contrary to precedent for a judge to use RFRA to let a person get out of testifying.
“I think it is quite predictable that the court’s decision in Hobby Lobby would open the door to such claims of an exemption from laws for religious reasons,” he said. “I fear it is just the start of cases of people claiming religious exemptions from general laws.”
Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, said the ruling shows how “Hobby Lobby threatens to make religious believers a law unto themselves.”
In her written dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that the Court, in Hobby Lobby, had “ventured into a minefield.”
In his ruling, the judge said that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others” in order to receive the protections under the First Amendment or RFRA, as long as they were “sincere”.
When will people learn that pandering to religion by giving them special privileges always leads to a mess? Because not only are many religious beliefs, however ‘sincerely held’ utterly absurd and even downright harmful and dangerous, religious people are never satisfied with the privileges they have and always demand more.