Professors Marci Hamilton and Howard Friedman recently engaged in an online debate about the merits of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Congress passed RFRA after the Supreme Court ruled that religious individuals must obey the law in the same manner as the non-religious. This idea was so offensive to religious believers that they successfully lobbied Congress to exempt them from many laws. Many states have followed Congress' lead and passed state RFRAs. Under the federal and state RFRAs, religious believers can challenge any law that places a substantial burden on their religion. The courts then rule that religious believers do not have to follow the law.
While Friedman thinks these statutes are a great idea that protects religious freedom, Hamilton is more persuasive in pointing out their folly. Hamilton discusses three cases:
In Potter v. District of Columbia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that the District was required to permit firefighters with facial hair to keep it, even though there was evidence on the record indicating that it is dangerous for firefighters to have facial hair.
In Barr v. Sinton, the Texas Supreme Court held that a small Texas town could not zone out halfway houses for ex-convicts from residential zones.
In Merced v. Euless, the Fifth Circuit interpreted the Texas RFRA to permit a Santerian priest to slaughter at least seven goats and sixteen chickens in his home, feed them to those in attendance, and discard the carcasses in plastic bags—with no regard for dangers such as cholera and E. coli.
In all three cases, a non-religious person would have to follow the law. The non-believer could not wear a beard, build a secular halfway house, or sacrifice animals in the home.
Religious exceptions to the law are a bad idea. They undermine the equality that is essential to democracy. The folly of RFRAs is undebatable.