Written by Don Byrd

Last week, I wrote about a criminal defendant in Arizona who is claiming a religious freedom defense (under RFRA) to charges that he violated laws that prohibit concealing and harboring those who have entered the United States illegally. The defendant in that case, Scott Warren, is a volunteer with a group called No More Deaths, a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.

I emphasized in my post that laws like RFRA are not “get out of jail free” cards, but that they provide an important legal framework for adjudicating claims for religious accommodation on a case-by-case basis. Also important, however, is that those enforcing the laws treat religious freedom claims without bias, free of political agenda, and without religious favoritism. Those are the themes of an op-ed in the Washington Post today entitled “Religious freedom for me, but not for thee” by Columbia University professor Katherine Franke. Here is an excerpt:

The No More Deaths volunteers have been criminalized for “feeding the hungry and caring for the sick” — the same activity Pence praised of religious groups in July. Now, faith-based groups in the Southwest that run soup kitchens and homeless shelters worry they’ll be targeted if they provide food and shelter to undocumented people as an act of humanitarian aid.

With one hand, Sessions has become the standard-bearer of the administration’s aggressive defense of religious liberty, arguing in case after case that a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs entitle them to an exemption from laws that conflict with those beliefs. Yet with the other hand, his office is ridiculing faith-based actors, parsimoniously interpreting the reach of religious-liberty rights to defend the administration’s partisan policy goals.

RFRA does not mean that the religious objector always wins. It does, however, require, the government to demonstrate the necessity of any substantial burden placed on a person’s sincere religious exercise. As Franke indicates, the vigor of the government’s argument should not be dictated by bias or politics.

Fortunately, though, the fate of claims like Mr. Warren’s is ultimately not in the hands of the Vice President, or the Attorney General. It will be decided in a court of law by a judge who is bound by the law’s framework and judicial precedent, and subject to appeal. That is why RFRA is important. It takes claims for religious objection to government action out of the hands of those very government officials and provides a venue for a proper hearing.

For more on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RFRA Resource page.