Recently, in an impromptu interview, Gary Johnson expressed some deep reservations about the idea of “religious freedom.” He essentially argued that it could lead to a slippery slope, in which religious individuals justify all sorts of crimes using their religious conscience. He said:
I mean under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything. Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn’t somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead.”
Now, this comment was admittedly incomplete. We’re not getting the full picture, since he’s referring to something previously addressed in the conversation, but wasn’t included in the interview transcript. So some people reached out and asked for clarification. Johnson responded:
My point, made with an unfortunate example, is that religion has been used too many times to justify discrimination, persecution and, yes, violence. Acts of violence and aggression can not be excused by religion and all people must be held accountable for their own actions.
Here’s my issue. No one (credible) is advocating for an unfettered ability to justify any crime under the auspices of relgious conscience. In short, nobody who is concerned about the rights of wedding vendors, doctors, and religious schools is asking for the ability to murder people with impunity.
His example may have been unfortunate, but he has only doubled down on his strawman: he believes that if you enact accommodations for those of religious conscience, you risk a slippery slope where you must accommodate ANY crime undertaken in the name of religion. And this simply is not true. It is wholly, unequivacably false.
Johnson’s perspective ignores hundreds of years of actual jurisprudence surrounding religious freedom. Since the founding of our nation, it has been recognized by courts that religious freedom is bounded by laws that protect public health and safety, or any other “compelling state interest.” Never has the Supreme Court — even under the strongest and broadest readings of the First Amendment — permitted people to engage in criminal behavior with impunity merely because their motives were religious.
There is no slippery slope here. No law passed by a legislature in the modern U.S. to protect limited religious freedoms of wedding vendors, pharmacists, pro-life doctors, or church universities is going to give ANYONE legal pretext to murder, plunder, or steal in the name of religion, or anything like it. Nobody (credible) in the debate even wants such a pretext. To imply otherwise is not merely a straw man of the religious freedom movement, but a overtly hostile reading of their intentions and proposals. Continue reading