By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
“Those situations in which the Court may require special treatment on account of religion are, in my view, few and far between, and this view is amply supported by the course of constitutional litigation in this area.”
-Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 423 (1963) (Harlan, J., dissenting)
Were Maurice Bessinger still alive, he would undoubtedly be a strong supporter of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Had that law been available in 1964, history might well read differently.
Mr. Bessinger owned a small chain of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina known as “Piggie Park.” As a matter of company policy, African Americans were prohibited from consuming food on the premises of his restaurants and were required to place and pick up orders from the kitchen window.
When a class action was filed against Mr. Bessinger under the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among his defenses was the claim that the Act violated the First Amendment because “his religious beliefs compel him to oppose any integration of the races whatsoever.” Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 941 (1966). The court had no sympathy for his defense. “Undoubtedly,” it said, “defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence and support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.” 256 F. Supp. at 945.
Mr. Bessinger partially prevailed at the trial court on interstate commerce grounds, but lost on appeal and was assessed attorney’s fees for his trouble, the Fourth Circuit finding that in view of a prior Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assertion that he was not bound because the law “contravenes the will of God” and constituted interference with “the free exercise of the Defendant’s religion” was legally frivolous. Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 377 F.2d 433 (4th Cir. 1967), aff’d, 390 U.S. 400 (1968).
Had the Religious Freedom Restoration Act been in effect when Mr. Bessinger was sued, might he have prevailed? Perhaps.
To place our discussion in proper context, a bit of Free Exercise history is in order. And the best place to start is with the first instance in which the Supreme Court was called upon to determine the parameters of freedom of religion, the case of Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878). The defendant was a Mormon, prosecuted for the offense of bigamy. His defense was that the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints mandated the practice of polygamy as a religious duty, a duty of such consequence that its breach entailed “damnation in the life to come.” 98 U.S. at 161. It was undisputed that Mr. Reynolds had taken a second wife (while still married to his first) in strict accordance with the prescribed rituals of his faith.
The direct issue was whether religious expression could be alleged as a defense to a criminal indictment. However, the Court framed it rather more broadly. “Religious freedom is guaranteed throughout the United States, so far as congressional action is concerned. The question to be determined is, whether the law now under consideration comes within this prohibition.” 98 U.S. at 162.
The Court began its analysis by noting the absence of a definition of “religion” in the Constitution, and then proceeded to rule without providing one. Instead, it turned to the writings of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, giving particular deference to the latter’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes no account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence the act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” 98 U.S. at 164. The Court deemed Jefferson’s words “an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.” Congress could not legislate concerning matters of belief, but “was free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.” Id.
The Court next observed that polygamy had been forbidden in western society by both common and statutory law for centuries, punishable by death. And marriage, although a “sacred obligation,” was nevertheless “a civil contract, and usually regulated by law.” 98 U.S. at 165. Therefore, it concluded, “it is within the legitimate scope of the power of civil government to determine whether polygamy or monogamy shall be the law of social life under its dominion.” Id.
The Reynolds decision did not create a formula for adjudicating religious freedom claims, but it did lay down several important principles. First, freedom of religion is not absolute. Second, no precise definition of “religion” is necessary or desirable because neither belief nor unbelief can be legislated. Third, actions motivated by religious belief are subject to regulation when they conflict with duties imposed upon society as a whole. “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinion, they may with practices,” the Court noted. 98 U.S at 166. In its view, to permit religious practices to trump laws regulating conduct would “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” 98 U.S. at 167. In short, religious freedom must sometimes be balanced against other compelling societal values.
It is true, of course, that the Reynolds court expressed a somewhat restricted vision of religious freedom. But the primary concerns of the Court were freedom of belief and freedom of worship. It should be remembered that the First Amendment was drafted from the perspective of a European history of religious warfare characterized by the burning of churches and the execution of religious dissenters. The Founders surely understood that a repetition of that history could only be avoided by a constitutional commitment to religious pluralism. Thus the Establishment Clause abandoned the notion that a central government had the power to define and enforce religious orthodoxy. The Free Exercise Clause recognized the primacy of the individual in matters of belief and unbelief and in the form and manner of worship. However, the First Amendment was not intended to abolish government’s ability to legislate limitations on human conduct which an actor has declared to be a form of protected religious expression.
Over the course of the following decades, and culminating with the opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), the Supreme Court crafted various tests designed to achieve the balance suggested in Reynolds. The ebb and flow of that jurisprudence, and the ways in which RFRA changed all the rules, is another topic.
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