The Corner

Politics & Policy

Gary Johnson, First Amendment Scholar

Last week, Libertarian party candidate told the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney that “religious freedom, as a category, [is] a black hole.” Another overlooked gem from that interview, in the same vein:

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.

This is some A-grade, five-star, top-shelf stupid — and that’s in an election featuring almost unlimited material from Donald J. Trump. Does this question really require an answer? Okay, give this one a whirl: Because it’s difficult to have a functional body politic when people are slaughtering one another.

More to the point, though: Johnson’s answer is entirely ignorant of American legal history. Yes, religion has been used as an excuse to perpetrate violence in the U.S. But that didn’t make the violence legal. “Freedom of religion” is not, and has never been, a blanket exemption from the penal code.

Nor is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Johnson was supposedly addressing with this response (and which he seems to be opposed to). The text of the federal version of that act, passed in 1993, reads:

Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—

(1)is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(2)is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Keeping citizens from willy-nilly murdering one another would qualify as a pretty darn compelling governmental interest — in the event that that were even an urgent problem, which it isn’t. The issue we face at present is whether, say, a Catholic nurse can be forced to participate in an abortion procedure. If you think protecting her conscience rights is starting America back down the slope toward segregated lunch counters, you’re a fool — or, apparently, Gary Johnson.

Sorry, social conservatives. This is not the “serious alternative” you’re looking for.

P.S. The reference to Mormonism, the Johnson campaign explained later, “was an admittedly very imprecise reference to the violence that accompanied the Mormon’s early history in the 1800s.” Can’t beat the quip from Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins: “To summarize: Mormons dislike Trump & Clinton more than any other voter group in America — and Johnson is warning of violent radical Mormonism.”

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