New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl thinks “it’s long past time for lawmakers in this country to propose a much more reasonable definition of religious freedom.” What’s unreasonable about the current definition of it? “In this country, citing religious or spiritual convictions is often a surefire way to get out of doing something you’re required by law to do.” This complaint seems doubly self-contradictory. If a claim for a religious exemption is “often a surefire way” to avoid a requirement, that means it’s not a surefire way. (In federal law and in the law of many states, a religious exemption from a law of general applicability is not available if a judge determines that the law furthers a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive means possible.) And if the law allows you not to do something, that means you’re not required by law to do it.
Renkl spends much of the column warning that families that take advantage of religious exemptions from vaccination requirements endanger other people’s lives. That’s the note she ends her column on: “Human lives may depend on” the triumph of her position. But she also wants to override religious liberty to save same-sex couples from having to find a different baker for their weddings. Obviously, what actually drives her analysis is not the high value she places on minimizing risks to human life but the low value she places on religious freedom (at least the robust type that has generally been recognized “in this country,” to use her favored locution).
By the way: I saw this column via a Twitter endorsement from Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, just in case you’re wondering what human rights that organization is keeping its watchful eye on.