Written by Don Byrd

Next month, a criminal defendant in Arizona faces trial for allegedly harboring and concealing persons who entered the United States without authorization. Scott Warren is a volunteer with a group called No More Deaths, a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. He claims his humanitarian assistance of others is motivated by his religious beliefs and argues as part of his legal defense that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects his actions.

The story highlights for me a couple of important truths about the way religious liberty is protected by law in the United States: First, claims of religious liberty are not pathways to automatic accommodation, or get-out-of-jail-free cards. A religious liberty defense is only one step; the government also has the opportunity to be heard. RFRA merely provides a judicial framework for addressing claims for religious accommodation. Second, religious freedom defenses do not belong to one political or ideological perspective. 

As The Nation reports, using Scott Warren’s case as just one example, RFRA is available to both conservative and progressive claimants:

The No More Deaths volunteers aren’t the only progressives raising religious freedom claims in court. Catholic activists with the Kings Bay Plowshares were charged with trespassing, conspiracy, and destruction of property after they entered a Georgia naval base to symbolically dismantle nuclear weapons. The activists have argued they are protected by RFRA because of their deeply held faith and Catholic social teaching against nuclear weapons.

In Pennsylvania, a group of nuns used RFRA to argue their religious freedom was violated by the construction of a natural-gas pipeline through their land. The sisters, members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, say they follow Pope Francis’s teachings that human-caused climate change is one of the biggest problems facing humanity today. The courts ruled against them, saying they brought their religious claims too late.

“Generally, I think we’re going to see a little bit more of this,” said University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger. “If RFRA is a tool being used by conservative parties, it’s a tool that’s available to progressive parties too.”

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