In part 2 of this two-part series, NC Family president John Rustin talks with Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, about how the current state of religious liberty in our nation is threatening the constructs of the U.S. Constitution.
INTRODUCTION: In Part 2 of this two-part series, NC Family president John Rustin talks with Travis Weber, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, about how the current state of religious liberty in our nation is threatening the constructs of the U.S. Constitution. This week, we’re please to bring you Part 2 of the current status of religious liberty, with Travis Weber, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.
JOHN RUSTIN: Travis, we appreciate so much what you do and what Family Research Council does, and this issue of religious liberty is such a critical matter that’s facing our nation today. As we begin, please give our listeners some background information about the Stormans vs. Wiesman case, whose is involved, what questions were at stake.
TRAVIS WEBER: Sure. This involves a family that owns a pharmacy in Washington state. This has been a business of theirs for some time. They do all the things that pharmacies typically do, dispense medication, provide and serve their neighborhood customers, and it was really sort of one of a typical local family business that had operated for a long time without really any issues. Then Washington state came along and imposed regulations on the pharmacies of that state requiring them to dispense certain drugs that destroy human embryos and basically end life, thus violating the consciences of people who believe that’s occurring and would be forced to play a part in that in that scenario by dispensing those drugs, and this included the Stormans. So they obviously had a problem with this. And, the regulations do not permit anyone to opt out on conscience grounds and say look you can go get your drugs down the street. This is a real problem and so they sued claiming a violation of the Free Exercise clause. The federal district court ruled in their favor, the federal appeals court reversed and ruled against them. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has rejected the case, declined to take it and even hear it, thus the Ninth Circuit’s appeals court ruling stands against the Stormans and it’s really unfortunate because now they’re being put in spot where they’re going to either be forced to violate their consciences or suffer some business here and be found in violation of the regulations.
JOHN RUSTIN: Now Travis, in your opinion are there ever instances where it is justifiable for laws to curb religious liberty, or to trump religious liberty? And if so, what are some examples of those?
TRAVIS WEBER: The framework we’ve had for decades now is a good framework, and it permits religious claims to be curbed in some instances. That framework would say there are instances where religious claim is rejected. We just weigh under a significant standard. There’s a high bar for the government to reach before it can burden a religious practice, and so the RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act standard, which at times is applied under the Free Exercise Clause—it should have been applied in the Stormans’ case, is that, you know, when there’s a sincere religious practice that’s been substantially burdened, and the person shows that, and the government has to show it as a compelling interest that it’s advancing through the least restrictive means, that the narrowest way possible. Only then can it burden the religious practice. So for instance, if someone says my religion dictates that I engage in honor killing, or something like that, there would be a compelling government interest in preventing that, and many other things. And so, it’s not as if every religious claim is always, always wins. And this is where, if people the laws, understood the standards, they’d see a lot of the media reporting on this is just not true. Wildly inaccurate, irresponsible claims being made in the media regarding blank checks, you know, in the name of religion, being able to do anything in the name of religion. That’s never been the way our laws operated. And so I think the standard’s good, it’s a way of permitting society to continue to function with different beliefs, yet giving increased attention and respect to the individual religious freedom right that’s long been part of our nation, indeed it’s in the First Amendment, and yet at the same time recognizing government has a legitimate interest in, at times, rejecting religious claims when they’re brought. Yet, you know we’ve had this standard forever and we shouldn’t tamper with it, yet all of a sudden people want to tamper with it now.
JOHN RUSTIN: Travis, as Americans, we want to believe that the First Amendment and the Constitution will protect us from these kinds of attacks based on our faith or morals, but that is not necessarily the case as we see from the suits that we’ve talked about. What do you believe is the answer? Do we need different laws? Do we need another constitutional amendment? What is the answer to this in your opinion?
TRAVIS WEBER: We need the law to be respected, the law that’s on the books right now. Primarily, the Free Exercise Clause would protect a lot of the issues we see. Now there’s some doubt and uncertainty, and after the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage, people’s beliefs regarding marriage need to be protected. However, you know, if you look at the denial of the Stormans’ case by the Supreme Court, a lot of this is just, you know, individual judicial philosophy is affecting decisions in the courts, and so it’s a deeper issue than just having a good law on the books. We need respect for the rights that are currently in our Constitution, in our laws. We need judges who respect the law. And when you have that you take the judge’s individual view really out of the matter, even if they disagree with the law they’ll respect it if they’re really adherent to a limited judicial role. You know, so I think we need that as part of the solution to what we’re facing now. You know and as people make their voices heard and let their elected officials know, hey you know people speak to their elected officials, as my elected official you need to respect my rights, protect my rights and stand up for them. On a wider, on a wide spread scale you know I think we’ll see some change in terms of some statutory protections, but I think all these points ah need to be emphasized.
JOHN RUSTIN: Travis, I know some people argue that public policy drives the culture, and others argue that the culture drives public policy, I think it’s a combination of the two. But it does seem that many people these days, including many Christians, don’t really grasp the vital importance of our religious liberty for our nation. Our Founding Fathers thought it was so fundamentally important that they put it into the First Amendment to the Constitution. But, there seems to be kind of lack of understanding about why the authors of the Constitution included it in the first place. If we take a step back and look at the big picture, talk a little bit about the concept of Religious Liberty on a big-picture scale, independent of the specific examples that we’ve talked about, about the Stormans’ case, the bakers, the pharmacists, etc. But, why in a broad sense is Religious Liberty so fundamental and so important to America?
TRAVIS WEBER: At the most basic level, it exists and it’s important because human beings have obligations to God that are more important than and separate from any obligation to government. Ultimately, you know the state, the government protect and recognize rights that exist. They don’t create rights and take them away. And so, if we recognize that there’s a higher authority and higher power, we have obligations to that higher power and we must be free to follow them. Now, more specifically with our founding, the Founders came over to the New World were fleeing from a state-established church, and you see the Establishment Clause preventing our government, in our Constitution preventing government from setting up a state religion and saying everyone must worship this. Along with that, the Free Exercise clause protecting an individual’s worship as he or see chooses to worship. So, this clearly sets forth a framework and a pattern of government for individuals to be free to worship as they wish and the government not interfering with that. For a long time we’ve been able to generally respect that, and the question remains whether we’ll have, we’ll be able to respect it going forward. But, it’s absolutely essential that, you know, for any sort of free democracy to exist that you have the freedom to worship because worship is so integral to our human nature, and it goes to the core of our being. If you take that away and you suppress that you can’t really have any freedom in any meaningful sense.
JOHN RUSTIN: I love what you said that we have as citizens we all have obligations to God over government, and I think that really hits to the heart of this. And we are called to live out our faith in a way that impacts the culture, that is true to what we believe. And Travis, kind of along those lines, for the benefit of our listeners who are likely to engage in their own discussions with friends, family members, neighbors, etc. about this subject, what do you find is the best way to communicate this concept to others just in daily conversation? I know it’s hard sometimes to get away from the legalese about it, but help our listeners with that.
TRAVIS WEBER: I think, you know, depends on the person, but oftentimes people jump at the chance to use the government to enforce morality as they see fit, and they don’t think much about that until the same law would come back on their heads and be used against them. And so when people want to use the government to penalize dissenters and force certain views on sexuality or marriage or abortion or other topics, we can ask them well you know what’s a scenario where you have a belief and the government would enact a law penalizing your belief. How would you feel about that? And create a hypothetical in which they’d be the one being punished by the government. It helps them see the principle that we should be wary about government using it’s heavy hand to enforce beliefs and impose beliefs on people. And so if someone can see that for themselves, and put themselves in the shoes of one who is at the receiving end of government coercion, they’re more skeptical and they think more carefully before jumping on this bandwagon of “the government should get involved in everyone’s business,” which people often jump on that bandwagon today. You know, it depends on the person obviously, but that’s a helpful sort of tool. I think otherwise, we just need to be in relationship with people, and as we’re in relationship with friends, family members, co-workers, we’ll have the credibility to speak into their lives in terms of what we believe and they’re more likely to respect and then honor our beliefs.
JOHN RUSTIN: Very good. Well, Justices Alito, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts all dissented in the Supreme Court’s decision not to consider the Stormans’ case. Tell us briefly what they said in that dissent and does that dissent, in your opinion Travis, present hope for the future of our nation as it relates to religious liberty?
TRAVIS WEBER: Sure. You know they did dissent and thought it significant enough to particularly why which is along some of the lines that I’d already mentioned, but primarily that this law was not neutral, generally applicable in Washington state, it targeted religious exemptions, and thus violated the Free Exercise Clause, or would appear to violate the Free Exercise Clause, under the Supreme Court’s own precedents, including the Lakumi case regarding animal slaughter, which Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for, despite you know refusing to even take the Stormans’ case now. And this goes to the point I made earlier about the court picking and choosing based on political reasons and and what religious beliefs were at issue in the case. The justices who dissented in the denial of the Stormans’ case made these points and they highlighted increasing politicization of the court. I think there’s hope if you know more judges and justices would adopt clear-headed reasoning that the dissenters did. I want to point out that these conservative politically conservative justices who dissented here still supported the rights of the Muslim claimants in the Holt vs. Hobbs case and the Abercrombie Fitch case. They’re supporting religious rights across the board. The ones who are not supporting and picking and choosing what they’re gonna support are liberal justices who refuse to support any religious claims of a traditional Christian belief. And this must be called out and must be pointed out that they’re not neutrally applying the law that exists on the books. So, if justices would recognize the error of that ways in that regard, other judges would recognize the problems with this type of political reasoning, I think there’s hope, but we need to have, the ship needs to be turned around in this regard.
JOHN RUSTIN: And a lot of those decisions will be made, presumably, as a result of the upcoming presidential election, and the individual who is able to choose potentially up to three or possibly four justices on the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming years. So, incredibly important election year this year for a variety of reasons, that being one of the most preeminent of those. Well Travis, we are nearly out of time for this week but before we go I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to learn more about this case, as well as the great work that you do at the Family Research Council.
TRAVIS WEBER: Sure, so this case, attorneys involved are from Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund. Both of their websites will have information on the case and other relevant materials. As far as general religious liberty issues, they can go to Family Research Council’s webpage and find various religious liberty publications, other materials, some of which have been authored by me and some by other folks on our own webpage. And we encourage people to go there and to go to the websites of Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund to kind of find out more about some of these issues and continue to follow them.
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