In the US, people use religious beliefs to claim a broad array of exemptions from the laws that apply to everyone. The primary vehicles for doing so have been the Free Expression clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and courts have often been willing to accommodate them. But it seems like there are limits to that leeway, as this case shows.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a religious rights case involving an Idaho man who refused to provide the state his Social Security number in a job-related filing because he said it was “the number of the beast” – an ominous biblical reference.
The justices let stand a lower court ruling against a man named George Ricks who in a lawsuit against Idaho demanded an exemption due to his Christian beliefs from the state’s requirement that he provide his Social Security number to apply to work as a state contractor.
Ricks said in court papers he believes, based on a section of the apocalyptic final book of the Bible’s New Testament, the Book of Revelation, that his Social Security number is “the number of the 2-horned beast,” an entity mentioned in the text.
“By forcing me to disclose an SSN (Social Security number) in order for one to buy my labor or for me to sell my labor, is in essence the number of the beast and the card is a form of the mark,” Ricks wrote.
The state rejected his 2014 application to register as a contractor in which he noted his objection, with officials saying the number is required under state law.
Ricks sued in 2016 but lost both at the district court and before the Idaho Court of Appeals, which said that the requirement for the Social Security number was a “neutral law of general applicability.”
One thing that was not clear to me from the article was whether Ricks thought his particular number contained the mark of the beast (usually identified as the number 666) or whether he thought that any identification number issued by the government was the mark of the beast, which suggests that he thinks the government is the beast in question.
So now what will Ricks do? Will he risk eternal damnation by using his social security card, which is required for pretty much everything, even though it bears the mark of the beast? Or will he decide to go off the grid, so to speak, and refuse to provide it, thus depriving himself of most services that we take for granted?
Meanwhile, the US Supreme court also declined to hear an appeal from a florist who had been fined by the state of Washington after she refused to provide a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding.
Washington state imposed a $1,000 fine on Stutzman for violating an anti-discrimination law and was directed to make floral arrangements for same-sex weddings if she does so for opposite-sex weddings. The Washington state supreme court upheld the fine.
The case raised two separate legal questions under the US constitution’s first amendment.
Stutzman’s lawyers at the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom had argued that the state violated not only her right to religious expression but her free speech rights, too.
The latter argument was based on the legal theory that arranging flowers is a form of creative expression protected in the same way as free speech.
The florist case was similar to the one that prompted the 2018 ruling on narrow legal grounds siding with a Denver, Colorado-area baker, Jack Phillips.
The court said in that case that the state civil rights commission that imposed sanctions on Phillips was motivated by anti-religious bias.
But the supreme court in that case did not resolve a broader question: under what circumstances can religious beliefs be cited to win exemption from penalties under anti-discrimination laws.
The justices opted not to use the florist case as another opportunity to do so.
Since the court merely side-stepped this issue without ruling definitively, we can expect more cases to be filed.