In Reynolds v. U.S. the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious beliefs are not a sufficient defense for breaking law, and thus Mormon polygamy was definitively outlawed. The opinion of the court delves extensively into the question of religious liberty, its roots and how the court must balance First Amendment religious guarantees against the law.
As “religious freedom” debates move to forefront of Utah’s ongoing Amendment 3 battle, here are three takeaways from Chief Justice Waite’s concurring opinion to consider:
- A crime motivated by belief is still a crime.
A Jihadist making bombs in a basement is committing a crime, just as if it were an atheist. The intent of a crime, especially a religious intent, does not justify breaking the law. If the law unfairly criminalizes religious acts, citizens must push to change the law before considering violating it.
A criminal intent is generally an element of crime, but every man is presumed to intend the necessary and legitimate consequences of what he knowingly does. […] The only defense of the accused in this case is his belief that the law ought not to have been enacted.
- The government can interfere to stop illegal religious acts.
Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.
Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?
- Religious freedom is freedom from civic and religious tyranny.Waite cites the preamble of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom as the definitive source for understanding the intent of the Founders in preserving religious freedom. The statute – of which James Madison was a chief sponsor– is rife with disdain toward all oppression from governments and religions. Wrote Jefferson:
The impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;
[…] Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,”
Religious freedom is not the right to act in any way according one’s beliefs, contrary to the LDS Church’s statement on religious freedom.
Chief Justice Waite warned that, “to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.”
Refusals to issue marriage licenses or deny services to LGBT citizens because of deeply held religious beliefs are acts contrary to the law and are indefensible. To a judge, religious belief doesn’t matter. All citizens are equal under the law and ought to be free of religious and civic tyranny.
- Religious Freedom Voided by Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (godfatherpolitics.com)
- ‘Religious freedom’ bill in Maine would lead to legalized discrimination, opponents say (bangordailynews.com)
- Religion, Sex, and Politics (revgalblogpals.org)
- Gov. Jindal: The Silent War on Religious Liberty (wafb.com)