Report: Expansion of religious exemptions undermining law

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The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Church in Washington is holding a live stream service with an empty audience in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some states have sought exemptions for churches from rules governing public gatherings during the health crisis. Image file by Kevin Deitch/UPI | license image

Nov. 26 (UPI) – A new report stressing the right to religious exceptions to the law — such as those that allowed medical professionals to refuse to provide contraceptive health care and a calligraphy company to refuse to sell wedding invitations to same-sex couples — have expanded dramatically in the past decade and threaten the freedoms of others.

Religious exemptions include more than LGBT and reproductive health issues, according to the Columbia University Law School Law, Rights and Religion Bill report in New York City. The report says that some states have passed or proposed bills that include a broader right to religious exceptions than the US Constitution provides.

“By citing real issues, we demonstrate that virtually any law or policy, including those that protect critical interests such as labor rights, public health, environmental welfare, emergency response, and religious pluralism, may be limited and/or significantly undermined by religious exceptions,” The Center for Political Thought says in the report, released earlier this month.

The report says the more expansive state bills have been modeled on the federal Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, which prohibits the government from placing a significant burden on the practice of religion except in order to further an urgent government interest and only if the action is the least restrictive means of promoting that interest.

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

Narrower bills that provide religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other public health laws are also expected.

“Those who have long sounded the alarm about the dangers of very broad exemptions often trot on the so-called ‘parade of atrocities.’ They say the broad right to exemptions may allow followers of religions to ignore countless civil and even criminal laws.”

Cat food, pasta strainer

The required exemptions listed in the report – some allowed and others denied by the courts – include paying less than minimum wage; exclusion of employees from protection under anti-discrimination laws because they are considered “ministers”; denial of jobs, housing, and services to certain groups of people, including religious minorities, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people; Allow parents to withhold necessary medical care from their children because of religious beliefs; Granting religious colleges exemptions from the requirement to recognize unions.

So far, no state has given couples a religious right to force their partner into a “biblical” or binding marriage or to claim a religion-based right to engage in serious crimes, the report says. He gives as an example a defendant who said he was a supporter of “natural creation” and argued unsuccessfully that his post for a naked child on Pinterest was of a religious nature.

Some of the exemption claims are confusing, the report says, citing a Florida man who said he had a religious obligation to eat cat food in the workplace and a Massachusetts woman who wanted to express her religious identity by wearing a spaghetti strainer on her head on her driver’s license. Photo.

(A federal judge ruled that a man’s personal religious belief regarding Kozy Kitten Cat Food was merely a personal preference that was not protected by the Constitution. After some legal wrangling between the Massachusetts Automobile Registry and the Humane Law Center of the American Humane Association, the woman, a member of the secular Spaghetti Bird Church, was allowed to Monster and describes herself as herself, wearing the strainer in her picture).

“While such claims are not necessarily harmful, they underscore the challenges of a system in which religious exceptions are often seen as a license to break from every conceivable law or policy,” the report says.

Protecting religious minorities

The report says that some exceptions are justified.

“Religious exceptions have also been used, for example, to ensure that incarcerated persons have access to kosher and halal food; schoolchildren and military personnel to be able to wear religious head coverings and hairstyles; and that members of small religious groups, including indigenous faiths, are not criminally prosecuted for using rituals for substances such as hoasca and peyote,” the report says.

Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, who advocate the 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 expected it would be used to grant unfair preferences based on religion – and we were right,” Fish said in a statement.

He says religious extremists have used the exemptions to undermine efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, they worked to pass bills that would give churches waivers from bans on large gatherings, convert churches to ultra-sprawling sites and put all residents at risk,” Fish says. “And in two Supreme Court cases, a court filled with religious ideologues agreed to exempt churches from common sense restrictions on the size of in-person meetings.”

To stop bills before they go to court, American atheists have launched state defense teams in Oklahoma, Virginia and Florida, and plan to start more in 2022, according to the statement.

Former Kansas State Representative Brett Parker is leading teams that will work to advocate for civil rights and the separation of religion and government, according to the statement. He said teams are being formed in Colorado and California.

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

“People are calling for religious exceptions for something as simple as wearing a mask,” he said. “It became like a card to get out of jail for free. If you could claim a religious exemption, it would be like concluding that no restrictions or law should apply.”

Parker said he will pursue the legislation with the help of teams and partner organizations. He said work will intensify in January, when state legislatures enter a session.

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