Rules Are for Schmucks: Good News Compendium

The struggle against the interlocking of church and state, challenging billions of dollars of God industry revenues, normally generates a great deal more bad news than good. The past few months, though, have seen a few little points of light. If you’re reading this while doing something pleasant, like sitting by a pool, perhaps highlighting some of these items will improve your day even further.


The top item is the US Supreme Court’s decision this summer not to hear the appeal against a Washington state regulation requiring licensed pharmacies to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives, like “Plan B.”. Individual pharmacy employees may choose not to touch what they regard as evil stuff if another employee is on hand to serve the customer, but they cannot simply tell customers, “God won’t let us sell that here—get lost.”

Patricia Miller, one of the most sensible writers on religious privilege, asks “Did SCOTUS Just Restore Sanity to Religious Liberty Debate?” She suspects that the Scalia-less court may be back on the path to true religious neutrality. If you don’t believe her, then believe Hobby Lobby opinion author Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote a frantic fifteen-page dissent warning, “If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.” “Great concern” for Alito equals “great jubilation” for those of us who believe in one rule of law for everybody, without special privileges for God experts.

On top of that decision, Sen. Cory Booker reintroduced a bill at the federal level that would fine pharmacists $1,000 a day for refusal to dispense emergency contraceptives. The bill isn’t going anywhere in this Republican Congress, but at least it’s a start.

Prison Guards

Meanwhile, another judge also veered in the “one law for all” direction. Some of the prisoners at Guantanamo, including the accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks, decided that as Muslim men, they were too high and mighty to be escorted from point to point within the prison complex by members of the US military who happen to be women. So they brought a legal complaint under RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to end this grievous assault on their religious liberty. And they were probably right. When you apply the plain meaning of RFRA to their situation, a “less intrusive” means of kowtowing to their religious sensitivities was readily available: just discriminate against the women soldiers (or against the men, depending on how you want to look at it) by segregating simple tasks like escorting a prisoner based on gender. The prisoners won their case.

Protests ensued, from senior officials and members of Congress who found the result outrageous and from women soldiers who alleged unlawful discrimination. No one, though, especially the members of Congress, would own up to the fact that RFRA itself is the root of the problem.

The good news here is that reason and fairness have at least temporarily prevailed. Women and men who are guards will now share fairly the duty of escorting these prisoners to and fro. The less good news is that this result was reached by the simple expedient of declaring RFRA inapplicable to Guantanamo prisoners, because they are “located outside sovereign United States territory.” (The earlier rulings came out before RFRA was declared inapplicable to Guantanamo.)

This presents a classic contrast of life with and without RFRA. Without the RFRA overhang, the judge was able to engage in a reasonable balancing of the actual harm to religious sensitivities against the disruption that would be caused by allowing prisoners to choose their own guards. With the RFRA cinderblock on the scale, though, it’s likely the outcome would be different, as it was earlier in the history of this controversy when the judges thought RFRA applied). And if the Obama administration ever carries out its pledge to move the Guantanamo prisoners to American soil, then they will be back in RFRA-land.

Military Insubordination

US Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling had difficulty getting along with her superiors. She disobeyed orders to wear a proper uniform and disobeyed orders to perform assignments. Antagonism rose to the point where she printed three large signs reading, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.” She taped them on the desk where she worked, a desk she shared with another marine, whose views about working at a desk with those signs no one seems to care about.

She disobeyed an order to take the signs down. When her superior officer took them down, she put them back up again. She was then court-martialed and given a bad-conduct discharge.

She never breathed a word about the signs being religious in nature until the middle of her court-martial trial, when for the first time she announced that they were taken from the Bible. (Actually, it’s a misquote, but who cares?) Therefore, she claimed, since she was freely exercising her religion, she should be protected from dismissal by RFRA.

The good news is that she lost. The less good news is that she bungled the case so badly that it has very little value as precedent or as any significant restraint against the tidal wave of RFRA. The opinion bends over backwards to point out that the main reason she lost was that she never bothered to request a religious accommodation to put up her antagonistic signs. If she had, it’s difficult to see how this court could rule the way it did.

Can you imagine a nonbeliever marine mounting on his or her desk a humorous Pastafarian poster, Darwin fish, or other sign that might offend a devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew? The officer in charge could and should demand that such a sign be removed instantly. Insulting your co-workers is no way to build a cohesive unit of any type, military or otherwise. Yet the court here clearly implies that if Cpl. Sterling had asked nicely for permission to put up religious signs, explaining what they were, RFRA would have afforded her every protection.

So, as with the Guantanamo guards case, a win is a win, but it’s not necessarily a trendsetter.

Indonesia’s Angel

Finally, another report that’s also not likely to be a trendsetter comes from a remote island in Indonesia’s Banggai region. The island’s largely Muslim population was swept by religious fervor last spring during a full solar eclipse. Then the very next day, villagers discovered a genuine angel, sent from heaven and washed up on the beach! Not just a vision, like the ones in Argentina that the Catholic Church just officially declared to be supernatural in origin. Nope! It’s a real, tangible angel. The mother of the fisherman who found her gave her a fresh change of clothes and new Muslim headscarf to wear every day. Pictures show her sitting up in a chair and accompanying locals on a boat trip.

This discovery stirred so much fascination and even unrest that authorities were sent to investigate. They discovered that not only could you actually touch this angel, you could do even more than that—because she was actually a life-size inflatable sex toy. The villagers, who have no access to the Internet, had never heard of such a thing before. The Indonesian police, who are not subject to RFRA, confiscated the doll.

So that’s all the good news you get. Next week, it’s back to cowardly politicians cringing before the power of the God lobby.