We live in a political environment that rewards those with short, snappy solutions to all society’s problems. Proponents of competing ideologies evidently see no shades of gray; appreciation of ambiguity is an endangered talent. Public dialogue has…
We live in a political environment that rewards those with short, snappy solutions to all society’s problems. Proponents of competing ideologies evidently see no shades of gray; appreciation of ambiguity is an endangered talent. Public dialogue has been reduced to an exchange of accusations.
Two current cases in point are the Indiana prosecution of William and Sarah Planck for the death of their son Lance; and the challenge to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) arising out of a zoning controversy in Boerne, Texas. As a civil libertarian, I am conflicted about both.
The Planck case goes to the heart of the conflict between parental rights and state power. At what point does government have the right — or duty –to intervene in parenting decisions based upon the beliefs of the parents? At one extreme, if parents believe in child abuse, most of us would endorse state intervention. On the other hand, there are plenty of horror stories about highly inappropriate social welfare decisions, where parents have been second-guessed by a paternalistic, all-knowing state. How do we protect the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit without abandoning our duty to the most vulnerable among us?
And what do we make of the conflict between St. Peter Roman Catholic Church and the Boerne, Texas Landmark Commission? The Archdiocese sued the town over denial of a permit to enlarge the church and thereby obliterate a significant historic structure in violation of Boerne’s zoning laws. The church asserts that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits burdening the free exercise of religion, even when the burden is imposed by a law that applies to everyone.
Civil libertarians and many others worked hard to achieve passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the wake of a Supreme Court decision allowing Oregon to prosecute Indians who used peyote in their religious rituals. We have argued for the right of a small religious community in Hialiah, Florida, to be exempt from local ordinances that interfered with their religious practices, which involved animal slaughter. The religion clauses of the First Amendment require that government be neutral with respect to religion, neither endorsing beliefs nor burdening their exercise. Does the right of those in religious communities to be free of state interference carry with it a right to disregard rules that others must live by? The answer is: sometimes. We have a general law against murder, and it is doubtful that the Constitution or the RFRA would protect religiously motivated human sacrifice. Both should protect ritual peyote use. Where do we draw the line?
We live in a more complex world than ideologues of left and right are willing to recognize, where easy answers are not necessarily correct and rigid prescriptions aren’t very helpful. There will always be situations where equally important principles are seemingly in conflict. It behooves us to act with care, lest we disturb a delicate but very important balance.