Religious freedom remains at risk, lawyer says
Last week the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court’s ruling, paving the way for a Santeria priest in Euless, Texas, to resume goat sacrifices as part of religious ceremonies.
The priest, José Merced, was represented by Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — a Washington-based civil rights law firm that protects the free public expression of all religious traditions, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and many others.
In an opinion article published by the Wall Street Journal, Rassbach explains his motivation for supporting Merced’s case:
The simple fact is that freedom of religion doesn’t mean much if it protects only those beliefs that the government, or the general populace, decides it likes.
It is first and foremost unpopular beliefs that need the protections afforded by the First Amendment and international human rights treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. […] No student of history could disagree. A constant in world history has been the marriage of despotism and the suppression of conscience. […] Freedom of religion is no less endangered today. […]
Religious freedom will remain at risk, even in the United States, for as long as one group of people is tempted to employ state power to suppress another group’s peaceful attempts to act on conscience.
Rassback also writes, “The Court did not decide whether Mr. Merced’s beliefs were right or wrong, orthodox or unorthodox. It simply held that as long as he is not endangering public health or safety, the government had to leave those beliefs up to him and his gods.”
He says that others do have the religious liberty to try and convince Mr. Merced that his beliefs are in error — and that’s the point: persuation, not state coercion.
But the ‘state’ often walks a fine line where religious liberty is concerned. Take, for instance, the legality — or illegality — of the cultivation, harvesting, or consumption of peyote in the U.S. and elsewhere. Here the law allows for the religious freedom of some people, while deying it to others.
The same is true for the religious use of marijuana. In a case involving the Church of Cognizance, the Arizona Supreme Court is to decide whether there is a religious right to use marijuana.
Meanwhile, a unanimous Supreme Court decision on in February 2006 gave a small religious sect the right to keep importing a hallucinogenic tea, central to its ritual observance, that the government wants to ban as a controlled substance under federal narcotics law.
• Religious freedom, tolerance, and intolerance