No, Religious Freedom Does Not Excuse Joining Terrorist Group

Three siblings were recently arrested at O’Hare airport in Chicago while attempting to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS. The oldest had told their parents that they were religiously obligated to do so. Now their attorney says it’s all okay because of religious freedom.

Lawyers for a suburban teen accused of trying to join Islamic State terrorists in Syria are making a new bid for his freedom while he awaits trial on charges they argue should be dismissed on First Amendment grounds.

Mohammed Hamzah Khan of Bolingbrook believed he had a religious obligation to emigrate to an Islamic Caliphate when federal agents nabbed him in October at O’Hare Airport as he allegedly tried to travel to the Middle East with two younger siblings, lawyer Thomas Anthony Durkin argued in a motion filed late last week.

“While it is easy to disagree with Mr. Khan’s unpopular religious beliefs and label them misguided simplistic, or even fundamentalist, it cannot be said that [they] were not sincerely held — and that is all that must be shown,” Durkin wrote.

Uh…no. That’s not all that must be shown. Even if someone does have a sincerely held religious belief, that doesn’t mean they can commit terrorism, or plan or conspire to do so. If the government can show that they were intent on joining a terrorist group, their religious beliefs are totally irrelevant.

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  • Alverant

    But what about those “religious liberty” or “right of conscience” laws?!


  • tomh

    Religious beliefs exempt believers from all sorts of laws, I don’t see why this should be any different. The government labels a religious group, like ISIS, as “terrorists,” and removes protections that believers of other religious groups get. If you’re going to exempt one set of believers from applicable laws, you should exempt them all.

  • sugarfrosted

    @2 Are you serious? Conspiracy to commit terrorism/murder has never been a religious exemption ever. It’s not a simple religious group as your strawman fuckwittery seems to suggest.

  • Chiroptera

    But I thought that having sincere* religious beliefs were a valid justification to not have to obey the laws that everyone else needs to?

    *Which is to be assumed since it isn’t the place of the courts to determine whether a person’s religious beliefs are sincere.

  • abb3w

    Restriction against joining such a group would probably survive the “least restrictive means” and “compelling interest” test that most RFRA laws require.

  • caseloweraz

    A defense lawyer is obligated to do anything he can to get his client off, or get a reduced sentence — excepting illegal actions, of course.

    But this argument is still a loser.

  • slc1

    Re caseloweraz @ #6

    Not true. There are actions that are not illegal but are considered unethical which an attorney can’t do. For instance, if his/her client confesses to a crime, it is considered a violation of legal ethics for the attorney to put the client on the witness stand to deny the charge or present a defense case asserting the innocence of the client.

  • slc1

    Re #7

    To make it perfectly clear so that there be no misunderstanding, I am referring to a confession of the client to the lawyer which is covered under the attorney/client privilege. It is, however, perfectly ethical and in fact is required that the attorney cross examine prosecution witnesses and force the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The verdict not guilty actually means not proven.

  • tomh

    @ #3

    Are you serious? How is travelling to the middle east conspiring to commit murder? It’s a bullshit charge. As far as something never having been a religious exemption before, so what? New exemptions are created all the time, the US legal system has thousands of them. Most of them were never exemptions before they were created.

  • eric

    See, the problem is they tried to join a violent militia advocating the overthrow of the US government that was foreign. When it comes to gun-toting crazy groups, the government prefers you buy domestic.

  • Joseph Sexton

    @#3 I think your sarcasm detector is due for its next regularly scheduled maintenance. I’m sure #2 had his/her tongue planted firmly in his/her cheek when he/she posted that.

  • peterh

    The “religious freedom” those three were so enamored of is the same “religious freedom” that flew planes in to the WTC.

  • Joseph Sexton

    @ #7 Close but no cigar. A defense counsel cannot present client testimony (or other testimony) which he knows is perjured. Defense counsel can put on a case not using perjured testimony and argue that the evidence creates a reasonable doubt, i.e. is consistent with factual innocence. For example, evidence that the police failed to investigate other likely suspects, failed to perform certain tests, a witness who testifies truthfully that earlier in the day he saw the defendant 50 miles away from the scene of the crime, a witness who testifies (truthfully) that another person had recently wished the victim dead and that person owned a weapon similar to the murder weapon. All you are ethically prohibited from doing is assisting the client in presenting testimony counsel knows if false.

  • Joseph Sexton

    Don’t they know religious freedom only protects those really devout corporations? Ond only christian ones, at that.

  • John Pieret

    @ #13:

    Closer still, but only half a cigar. A lawyer cannot prevent his client from taking the stand. It was recommended by the ABA (back in the day when I was faced with the problem) that the lawyer attempt to be relieved from representing the client (which won’t be granted because s/he cannot reveal the conversations with the client that give him/her cause to think the client will commit perjury) and if the client insists on testifying, the lawyer should ask the client if he has something to say to the jury and sit down and not further participate in the perjury.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Look out when these three ratbags get back home to mummy and daddy. They’ll be on the Internet looking up bomb recipes in next to no time.

  • StevoR

    @ ^ grumpyoldfart : If they are – indeed whatever they do, I think its a pretty safe bet they’ll be under a lot of scrutiny from various intelligence and security agencies.

    @8. slc1 : Changed your nym back from colnago80 have you I presume ? Curious as to why?

  • dingojack

    JP (#15) – if you said to the judge:

    ‘My client insists on going on to the witness stand. My conversations with him/her leads me to strongly believe he’ll commit perjury on the stand. This would place me in a position of having to suborn such perjury as a defence council, while reporting both the perjury and suborning perjury to the court as an officer of this court. Your Honor surely would regard such a position as being untenable, both from a legal and an ethical point of view.”

    Would that be enough for your request to be released from representing the client?


    Stevo — it could be something to do with the OpenID stuff-up (on MS’s part, I hasten to add).

  • StevoR

    @ ^ Dingojack : Yeah that makes sense.

  • John Pieret


    My conversations with him/her leads me to strongly believe he’ll commit perjury on the stand.

    That would be a violation of attorney-client confidentiality right there and one that could obviously prejudice the client. You’d be telling the judge that you know the client is a perjurer. It is a very difficult problem for lawyers. Fortunately, it doesn’t come up too often, since perjurers usually lie to their lawyers too.

  • dingojack

    JP – OK let’s try this hypothetical:

    Let us suppose that instead of the crime of Perjury, your client tells you, in conference, that he/she is planning to wear and detonate a suicide-vest, killing all in the courtroom and he/she advises you to run late.

    Would you feel more obliged, as a sworn officer of the court, to inform the police (and not be an accessory to a crime/ be involved in killing others), or more obliged to protect your client’s confidentiality?

    Especially if you informed the court of your impression of your client’s admissions, rather than the specific admissions?



    Personally, in the original situation, I’d warn the client of my responsibilities as an officer of the court and point out that I’d be obliged to report any specific information and admissions about any past or future crimes to the authorities, so they should think carefully about anything they say… [unless, of course they want to confess, to try for the mercy of the court, for example]

  • busterggi

    ” they can commit terrorism, or plan or conspire to do so.”

    Nope, only Christians can do that, its called planning for the second coming.