Civil Liberties

Fundamentalists vs. the First Amendment

Stop worrying about Shariah. Christian fanatics are the ones using the government to restrict individual liberty.


Religious fundamentalists threaten the American way of life by seeking to impose their will upon us, because they hate our freedoms. So say lawmakers in a growing number of (mostly Bible Belt) states who have introduced measures to forbid the use of Shariah law in state courts. The lawmakers are like the woman in Kansas who recited a special chant to keep the Bengal tigers away. Informed that there were no Bengal tigers, she replied that the chant must be working.

The likelihood that civic authorities in Alabama or Georgia will start taking orders from Islamic fanatics by, say, issuing fatwas seems remote. As for whether civic authorities might start taking orders from Bible-thumping Christian fundamentalists—well, better ask Laura George.

George would like to set up an interfaith spiritual retreat in Independence, Va. (motto: "In God We Will Grow"), which is the county seat for Grayson County. Last year the county planning commission unanimously approved her proposal—consisting of the retreat, an education center, a library, and 10 cabins.

At that point, it seems, Grayson County went nuts.

According to an account by Susan Kinzie of The Washington Post, "prayer groups sprang up to stop her. … So many people filled the Board of Supervisors hearing (in June 2010) that the panel had to move into a courtroom upstairs. After pastors and others spoke at the hearing, many saying that the project was anti-Christian, a cult and a threat to the community, the board killed it." The story quotes Rhonda James, one of the project's many opponents, who says she is "glad it didn't come. … I'm a Christian, fundamentalist Christian, and so are most people in the area."

George is now suing, with the help of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which champions civil liberties. Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead calls the rejection of George's application a clear violation of the First Amendment, not to mention Virginia's constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and religion.

In the lawsuit, the Rutherford Institute notes that more than a dozen local ministers urged the county's Board of Supervisors to turn down George's application, on the grounds that her philosophy and religious orientation are not in keeping with Christian doctrine. Not only that, they are heretical and—really—"communist." That last seems a bit rich. If you go to the Oracle Institute's website, you'll find that its mission statement quotes at length not from Karl Marx, but from Thomas Jefferson.

Naturally, county officials deny that George's non-denominationalism had anything to do with the supervisors unanimously rejecting her application. Rather, it was a matter of protecting the health and safety of county residents. Because as we all know, interfaith services are more dangerous than dioxin.

Since then, county attorney Jim Guynn has had the opportunity to refine the county's position. He told the Post's reporter that speakers at the Board of Supervisors hearing did not say only that George's faith went against God. Some of them also raised concerns about zoning and property values.

Alas for Grayson County, that dog won't hunt, either. For one thing, county regulations stipulate that if the planning commission approves a permit like the one George seeks, then they should be deemed appropriate "as a matter of right."

Well, a county ordinance is not exactly federal law. RLUIPA, on the other hand, is. The acronym stands for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which Congress passed by unanimous consent in 2000. The sponsor was Sen. Orrin Hatch.

RLUIPA stipulates that governments cannot apply land-use regulations in a manner that incommodes religious assemblies, unless (a) they are doing so for the sake of a compelling government interest, and (b) the burden being imposed is the least restrictive means of pursuing that interest.

Mighty high bar there.

Congress passed RLUIPA as a rebuke to the Supreme Court—which had struck down a previous statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), as overly broad. The particulars of the backstory are instructive.
Back in 1990, the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law forbidding the use of peyote, a drug used in Native American religious rituals. Faith groups worried that the precedent could lead to more laws that infringed on religious practices, so Congress passed RFRA.

A few years later Patric Flores, the Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, wanted to expand his church in Boerne, Texas. Zoning officials said no. So Flores sued under RFRA. The high court struck RFRA down for technical reasons too abstruse to dwell on here. Congress then retaliated with the more narrowly tailored RLUIPA.

Five years after its passage, several Ohio prison inmates tried to use RLUIPA to get authorities to recognize their decidedly non-mainstream religions: Wicca, Satanism, Asatru, and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a white-supremacist sect. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the inmates' favor. Compared with the inmates' religions, Laura George's views seem positively tame.

What's interesting about all this history is that at least since 1990, it constitutes a march toward greater religious freedom. Jefferson, whose Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom Laura George so copiously quotes, would nod in approval. But then, by the current standards of Grayson County, Jefferson was a dirty commie.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.