[I need to respond to]…Margaret Renkl’s fundamentally misguided op-ed about religious liberty in…[a recent] New York Times. Like me, Renkl writes from Tennessee (she’s in Nashville; I’m in Franklin), and she uses a recent Tennessee incident where a Dickson County baker refused to design and bake a cake for a gay wedding as a launching pad for an attack on America’s most fundamental First Amendment freedoms. Unfortunately, she makes two important legal errors.
First, she gets the primacy of American law exactly backwards. She formulates religious liberty like this: “In this country, citing religious or spiritual convictions is often a surefire way to get out of doing something you’re required by law to do.” This is a common framing on the left. Essentially, it’s an argument that religious freedom is an intrusion into the law and that religious people are engaged in a form of special pleading — seeking rights and exemptions unavailable to other Americans.
In reality, the First Amendment is supreme, and when states seek to intrude on religious liberty, they’re trying to get out of something they’re required by law to do. Respecting the First Amendment is the default obligation of the federal government and every state and local government in the United States. When people of faith appeal to the First Amendment, they’re appealing to America’s highest law, and while Employment Division v. Smith weakened the Free Exercise Clause, multiple subsequent cases have restored at least some of its vitality, and most religious freedom claims are also grounded in the very robust free speech clause of the First Amendment.
And this brings us to Renkl’s second error — false equivalence.
Read it all and makes sure to read the origirnal article to which he is responding.