It seems that with all the media attention
from the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act case, more people have started realizing what an enormous can of worms these law really open. Yesterday I covered the story
of Joan Cheever, who will be arguing before a Texas court that she has a right to violate San Antonio's prohibition on distributing food to the homeless on religious freedom grounds.
The reason these laws can apply in so many ways is that the Supreme Court established long ago that the government cannot rule on the sincerity of any particular religious belief. It may intervene if a "compelling reason" exists, such as practices that cause real harm to the public. But otherwise, pretty much anything is fair game. So the Pastafarians can wear colanders on their heads in official photos, even though the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" is acknowledged to be a joke. Likewise, members of The Satanic Temple don't have to believe in a literal Satan.
Now this story
, out of Tennessee, is an application of the law that I've never heard of before. A swingers club in Madison, Tennessee encountered resistance from the city when it announced plans to open. City officials went so far as to change the building's zoning so that it could not be used as a club. But the owners have now rebranded it as a church, and claim that they are therefore entitled to religious freedom protections.
Previously the owners of the proposed club in Madison had submitted plans to convert a former medical building, situated next to a Christian school, into a sex club only to meet with stiff public resistance.
Following a packed and contentious meeting last month — with one audience member shouting “we don’t want this darkness to extinguish this beacon of light that has been here for years and years” – the Metro Council amended the zoning laws to prevent the club from being developed.
Relying upon federal laws that protect churches, the owners reapplied as a church. A room that was once labeled “the dungeon” is now the “choir room.” The former “game room” will now be known as a “fellowship hall.”
And if their group can get recognized as a 501C3 religious corporation, as far as I can tell they're good to go - at least if the law is applied consistently. As is the case with most consensual, victimless activity it would be hard to argue that the activities of this "church" will cause harm to the public. The city probably will try in order to keep it closed, but it will be interesting to see the eventual ruling. At some point lawmakers will probably amend these laws in order to limit their scope, but until then I can imagine a lot more cases like this one going forward.
See, I'm mostly fine with the current situation, to tell you the truth. I understand that Christians originally pushed these laws thinking that they could use them against minority religions, but they also protect all sorts of non-mainstream things that minority religions might practice. I'm not in favor of world in which religion is driven from the public square; rather, I'm in favor of a world in which every flavor of religious belief is proudly represented, along with philosophies such as scientific materialism.
The good thing about these religious freedom laws is that they mean I don't have to obey the dictates of somebody else's religion, and they can't stop me from practicing mine. That works for me. We do need more comprehensive non-discrimination laws to deal with some of the assholes, as the Indiana case highlights, but as I that as a separate issue.