No, Hobby Lobby Doesn’t Exempt the FLDS from Child Labor Laws

Hildale, Utah sits at the base of red rock cliff mountains with its sister city, Colorado City, Ariz. in the foreground. Douglas C. Pizac, The Associated Press.
Hildale, Utah sits at the base of red rock cliff mountains with its sister city, Colorado City, Ariz. in the foreground. Douglas C. Pizac, The Associated Press.

You may have seen the headlines:

Using Hobby Lobby to refuse a subpoena about child labor.

Judge: Hobby Lobby Decision Means Polygamus Sect Member Can Refuse to Testify in Child Labor Case.

The sky is falling!  Just like Justice Ginsburg predicted it would!  I told you that Hobby Lobby was about more than just birth control!  Now those religious fanatics are using it to undermine child labor laws!

Or not.

It’s quite apparent that the authors of the alarmist articles haven’t bothered to read Judge Sam’s actual ruling in Perez v. Paragon Contractors, Corp., et al, which is based soundly on the well-established standard set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and references Hobby Lobby only as the most recent binding RFRA case coming out of the Supreme Court (hint, Judge Sam also cites to Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in Hobby Lobby).

All the furor is apparently based on nothing more than the fact that (1) a Judge upheld a religious freedom claim, while (2) citing, in some manner, to Hobby Lobby.

Say it with me folks: correlation is not causation.  The mere fact that a RFRA claim was upheld while citing to Hobby Lobby doesn’t mean the Hobby Lobby decision was responsible.  And, of course, it wasn’t.

slcCourthouse-blurred-large_1396391063940Moving out of logical fallacy land, here’s the actual situation: Perez is a case brought by the Secretary of Labor based on allegations that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) used child labor to harvest pecans.  During the discovery phase of the case, the attorneys for the U.S. Department of Labor questioned Vernon Steed regarding the leadership structure and internal affairs of the FLDS church relating to the harvesting operation.  Steed objected, invoking his right to religious freedom under the First Amendment, and therefore the protections of RFRA.

Judge Sam then applied the statutory RFRA test (which is unchanged by Hobby Lobby), and concluded, unsurprisingly, that the discovery request for information did, in fact, burden Mr. Steed’s sincerely held religious belief not to disclose internal church matters.  The Judge also concluded that the Department of Labor had not shown a compelling reason for Mr. Steed to answer the question, particularly because there appeared to be other non-FLDS sources from where the information sought from Mr. Steed could be obtained — in particular, nonmember contractors hired to manage the farming operating in question.

The suggestion from Judge Sam’s opinion is that, in the event that the Department of Labor can demonstrate that Steed (or other FLDS members) are the only source of the information requested (and assuming the information is relevant), disclosure would be compelled — despite RFRA and even despite the Hobby Lobby case.

So, let’s be clear about what actually happened and what did not happen:

– Vernon Steed’s objection to deposition questioning was upheld under RFRA, at least until the Department of Labor can demonstrate a compelling reason to discover that information despite his religious beliefs

– Judge Sam did not exempt the FLDS from child labor laws because of the Hobby Lobby decision.

Is it inconvenient for the Department of Labor to have to try to obtain the information elsewhere?  Undoubtedly.  It’s probably more costly, too.  But, then again, that’s the whole point of RFRA — to value religious freedom sufficiently to be willing to impose higher costs to protect it.

Are you upset about Perez?  Mad about Hobby Lobby?  Fine.  That’s your right.  But start directing your frustration where it belongs: toward Congress — which overwhelmingly passed RFRA for the purpose of overruling Supreme Court precedent (authored by the evil Antonin Scalia, no less) less favorable to religious freedom — and not towards Hobby Lobby.

To the extent you believe that the sky is falling because of religious freedom exemptions, it actually started falling 20 years ago, not this past summer.

Or hadn’t you noticed?

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