The religious liberty right to believe that algebra is an abortifacient

The lawsuit involving Tyndale House’s “religious” refusal to provide health care for female employees raises some intriguing questions.

Tyndale is Protestant, and thus lacks any longstanding doctrinal or theological basis for its alleged religious objection to contraception. So Tyndale House is pretending it’s not about an objection to contraception, but to abortion — because, contrary to science and reality and Tyndale’s own religious tradition, they “believe” that contraceptives are “abortifacient.”


Say you have a public school student who is an observant Jew. That student has a reasonable religious liberty objection to being offered only school lunches containing pork. But what if this student were to refuse school lunches containing beef, asserting that he believes beef to come from pigs and therefore to violate his religious commitment to keeping kosher.

Does the school have an obligation to accommodate the delusional belief that beef comes from pigs? Tyndale House says yes. The Christian publisher says it has a right to its own sectarian facts and sectarian reality, and that no such thing as objective truth exists that might constrain that.

The Rutherford Institute — which is like a much more thoughtful and interesting version of the religious right — is making a similar legal argument on behalf of a Texas high school student who objects to the GPS tracking in her school’s student ID badges.

One could certainly argue that this is an intrusive violation of students’ privacy, but the religious right does not believe in privacy. So instead the Rutherford lawyers are arguing that the ID badge violates the student’s “religious liberty,” because she believes she’s being asked to accept the Mark of the Beast spoken of in the book of Revelation.

Note that any sort of objective, knowable reality is irrelevant to this legal argument. It does not matter that the Northside Independent School District is not, in fact, the Beast of John’s Apocalypse. Nor does it matter that this student ID is not, in fact, the Mark of the Beast.

The student’s beliefs are factually wrong — demonstrably so. Her beliefs are based on poor exegesis, scientific ignorance, a haughty disdain for others, and a preference for fearful lies over objective truth. Yet they remain her beliefs. And thus, Rutherford says, she has a legal right to be foolishly, fearfully wrong. Sure, her church seems to be the sort of place that abuses the Bible, cherry-picking distorted proof-texts to reinforce a stunted, fearful incomprehension — but it’s still a her church.

Religious liberty cannot only mean the right to believe in that which can be proved. Nor can it only mean the right to believe in unassailable religious claims that can neither be proved nor disproved. It also has to include the right to believe in sheer nonsense that can be or even has been disproved. The state does not want to get entangled in the business of evaluating the relative respectability or legitimacy of various religious claims.

This is why the law surrounding religious freedom attempts to remain neutral about the legitimacy of religious claims, restricting itself to evaluating instead whether or not the state has a compelling secular interest in regulating behavior related to those claims. A school district can probably manage some accommodation for a student who claims to think ID cards are the Mark of the Beast, but what of students who claim to believe that vaccination is the Mark of the Beast? Or what if a student, emboldened by Tyndale House’s suit, claims that his religion forbids algebra because it is an “abortifacient”? (That claim would have as much basis in reality as Tyndale’s own supposed “belief” about contraception does.)

The bottom line, for me, is that we should try to accommodate even delusional kooks just as long as they are not hurting anyone else. The Texas student doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone else, so she can likely be tolerated as That Weird Kid With No ID Because She Thinks Everyone Else Is The Antichrist. She may cling to a theology that literally demonizes the entire school district, but since it’s also a flaccid, impotent theology that doesn’t require her to confront this supposedly Satanic evil in any meaningful way, she’s probably mostly harmless.

But Tyndale House is not harmless. The publisher is refusing to provide the health insurance its employees have earned. That is “wages kept back by fraud,” as the book of James says, and it should not be legally permitted, no matter what trumped up religious delusions Tyndale claims as justification for such wage theft.

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  • Keshet

    Beef provided as part of a school probably wouldn’t be kosher. Just because it comes from a kosher animal doesn’t mean the meat itself is kosher.

    I love your blog, but I really wish you’d stop making these kinds of references about Orthodox Judaism and getting it wrong.

  • gpike

    Growing up I was told that contraceptives were “abortifacient” and I have been called a baby killer in the past for choosing to use hormonal contraceptives. It hurt me and caused me a lot of conflict when I was younger, but childbearing is simply NOT an option for me, so IDGAF.

  • As I read it, the situation is worse than that.  Nobody is requiring that Tyndale house provide contraception.  Rather, the requirement is that they provide comprehensive health insurance.  Presumably Tyndale House objects, because an employee might choose to use that comprehensive insurance for obtaining contraceptives.

    By the same reasoning, Tyndale House should refuse to pay its employees any salary.  After all, an employee might choose to use that salary to purchase contraceptives.

  • Lori

    By the same reasoning, Tyndale House should refuse to pay its employees
    any salary.  After all, an employee might choose to use that salary to
    purchase contraceptives.  

    It amazes and pains me the number of reasonably intelligent people who just can’t grasp this.

    My Thanksgiving family horror story this year was discovering that my sister, who is generally quite sensible even when I don’t agree with her, actually believed that the issue about the contraceptive coverage mandate was that women wanted the government to pay for their birth control so they could go out and fornicate. I stayed really quite calm while explaining that no, that was not the issue but what I wanted to do was shoot her the look of horror and ask her WTH was wrong with her. 

  • MikeJ

    RFID is not GPS.

    Do schools have no interest in knowing if students are present, and if they are, where on campus they are?

  • Richard Hershberger

    Actually, Fred uses neither the word “Orthodox” nor “kosher”.  He wrote of a hypothetical “observant Jew”.  There is observant and there is observant.  I know many non-Orthodox Jews who are observant to the extent of not eating pork, but who are not observant to the extent of requiring their beef get the full certification.  I expect that an Orthodox Jew wouldn’t think this too “observant” but other Jews might disagree.

  • Yeah, pretty much.

    I find it helps to treat beliefs as tools that affect how effectively I can interact with my environment. When I instead start treating beliefs as a part of that environment, I generally go wrong.

    Or, in more traditional terms: it helps to not confuse the map for the territory.

  • Lori

    And of course the “observant” Jew could be observing something he pulled out his behind right along with the belief that beef comes from pigs.

    If it’s his belief, what are ya gonna do? /sarcasm

  • Jurgan

    “It does not matter that the Northside Independent School District is not, in fact, the Beast of John’s Apocalypse. Nor does it matter that this student ID is not, in fact, the Mark of the Beast.
    The student’s beliefs are factually wrong — demonstrably so.”    How exactly can this be demonstrated?

  • I read the article and do get its point.
    But I’m just wondering how algebra could be used as an abortifacient. People may not like Algebra, with all its Xs and formulas, but that is a tad much.

  • Lori

    The school district isn’t doing any of the other things that the Beast of John’s Apocalypse is supposed to do, including things that are supposed to happen before the Beast places his mark on people. The verses this poor nitwit uses to back up her belief that her student ID is the mark of the beast are the same ones that prove that it’s not.

  • Lori

    That is the point. Algebra is not an abortifacient and neither is birth control.

  • EllieMurasaki

    It can’t, just as tricking the body into thinking there’s already a bun in the oven so as to prevent ovulation is not a method of abortion (seeing as ovulation must precede fertilization which must precede abortion), which is the point.

  • You know, there’s an urban legend about schools being based on the same architectural plans as prisons.

    Your complacent acceptance of RFID tracking of students makes me wonder how quickly Canada and the USA want to prove the equivalence actually holds.

  • P J Evans

     I’m wondering how bad the schools in that district are, that they have to use RFID to keep track of students. (It certainly implies to me that the students would rather be anywhere else.)

  • There are legitimate civil rights reasons to reject the presumption that high school students are innately truculent and resistant to authority, and so reject the use of tracking tools for surveillance of students.

    Attempting to block this kind of thing on religious conscience grounds, when such grounds seem so manifestly absurd, does a few things:

    1. It does a disservice to those high school students who resist the notion that minors should have no civil rights at all, and want to prove themselves capable of effectively arguing their case on waterproof grounds of logic and reason. Adults have many excuses to patronize teenagers on the grounds of age. Paraphrasing Snape, it is like handing your opponent weapons with which to defeat you.

    2. It makes other religious conscience objections look absurd and petty. People who have legitimate doctrinal beliefs to reject certain things will almost certainly, by association to this individual, be regarded less seriously than they now are.

    3. Secular organizations that want to block the encroaching surveillance-state system will look ridiculous partnering up with said religious-conscience people, even though their desired goal would be the same.

    In short, there are good reasons for people who object to things on the grounds of religious conscience to first try and decide if there is a legitimate secular basis on which to object, since the same student objecting to there being only one kind of meat and vegetables could be taking up the banner for vegans, vegetarians, people with special dietary needs and more besides, not just taking up the banner for their particular doctrinal interpretation of a faith not everyone believes in.

  •  When one has truly embraced the Essence of Algebra, the understanding of the mutually reversing properties of multiplication and division pervade even one’s reproductive system, whereupon the idea of multiplying people through cell division becomes a practical impossibility.

  • Citizen Alan

     I can honestly say that I’ve never been in a school that looked anything like a prison from the inside. I’ve seen a few that look vaguely like a prison from the outside,but only schools old enough to have built during the Brutalist era. I’ve certainly never heard of a prison which tries to keep up with its inmates by having them wear RFID name badges as they roam freely around the place. Or for that matter, a prison without a fence of any kind where the only thing keeping the prisoners from just walking away is the threat of detention.

  • JustoneK

    If birth control is an abortifacient, so are all menstrual cycles.
    “No, you’re the abortifacient!”

  • Vass

    Maybe there’s something in this business of algebra being an abortifacient. Algebra – that’s some sort of Muslim thing, right? And Muslims and gays and pro-choicers and socialists, they’re all the same people, right? So algebra = Muslim = abortion.

  • J_Enigma32

     The number of the beast was put on the forehead or hand. An ID tag on a lanyard is neither.

    Second, the number of the beast was instituted AFTER the Antichrist had already taken control over the world. *looks around* I don’t see any antichrist.

    Third, the number of the beast is a number. 666. 666 is demonstrably not a bar code with your social security number on it.

    So her “it’s against my religion” garbage isn’t even consistent with her own ridiculous interpretation of the Bible. And this is before we get into the fact, that, you know, the Rapture is a bunch of bullshit and that entire way of reading the Bible is contrary to a “literal” reading, in the same way that “common sense” is contrary to people like her.

  • E_Hyde

    At my university, our student IDs had RFID tags in them, and I thought this was pretty common. They were used to unlock doors, pay bus fare, etc. Presumably it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to have the system set up to keep a log of which ID cards were used to unlock which doors at what time, but as far as I know, this wasn’t actually done. I had this brilliant plan where I was going to remove the tag from my ID and put it in a sonic screwdriver (from Doctor Who) so I could point it at doors and unlock them, but I never did get that to work.

    To combine the examples from the blog post, one of my friends, who is an observant Jew, had a physical key for the dorm as well, so that he wouldn’t have to use the electronic lock on Saturdays.Going through the links to the original report, it seemed more like the school was going to use the system to keep track of numbers of students, not to track the movement of individuals, but it wasn’t completely clear. Certainly not GPS, though. I do agree that having RFID tags in ID cards for the sole purpose of taking attendance is a bit disconcerting.

    My mom used to think that RFID tags would be the Mark of the Beast … then my dad started working for a company that designs them. 

  • Jessica_R

    Considering how bad I am at math, Algebra turning out to be some hateful, arcane dark magick makes a lot of sense actually. 

  • It’s security-state thinking: the notion that people have to be tracked at all times, even if there is no good reason to do so.

  • SisterCoyote

     Eh. My mother was along the same lines – she objected to the implanting of RFID chips in dogs, simply because it could be used to eventually become the mark of the Beast.

    I think the logic is something like: the technology could/is going to be the mark of the beast. The government is being run by secularists/atheists/satanists, or corrupt politicians who cater to those groups. The secularists/atheists/satanists want to bring about the rise of the Antichrist. The government gives them what they want. Therefore, government having access to this technology means that it will bring about the rise of the Antichrist.


  • stardreamer42

     Shhh! Don’t give them ideas!

  • stardreamer42

     I would think that the schools would be more worried about the presence of unauthorized NON-students on campus. RFID isn’t going to solve that problem.

  • stardreamer42

     A significant percentage of the people who worry about “the number of the Beast” already DO believe that the SSN is that number. The problem is exacerbated by the number of companies who use SSN as an employee ID, even though they are explicitly not supposed to do that sort of thing.  (This is one of the reasons your driver’s license number is not your SSN.)

  • Depends on what state you’re in. When I lived in VA in the ’90s my driver’s license number was my SSN. Here in Texas it isn’t, which is probably more sensible (but using “Texas” and “sensible” in the same sentence hurts my brain and now I must go have a lie-down).

  • My mom used to think that RFID tags would be the Mark of the Beast … then my dad started working for a company that designs them.

    This is one of those things that always struck me as ridiculous.   Almost every company I have worked at since leaving retail uses a similar RFID system (and it would not surprise me if retail companies all over started doing that too for efficiency’s sake.)  Generally, they are just used as keycards, but the advantage over traditional keys is that if a person loses their keycard, they do not have to change all the locks to prevent unauthorized entry, just disable the old keycard and print a new one.  

    I can certainly see keycards for students used for truancy enforcement though.  Less of a “track you down wherever you are” kind of thing (anyone could just throw the keycard away so there is no benefit in trying any remote tracking) and more of just checking how regularly a particular student goes through the school doors.  

  • Brad Jones

    I can’t defend the Mark of the Beast girl, but Tyndale seems to have a stronger case because there are scientific studies that show that birth control pills thin the uterine wall.  This would causes the fertilized egg that may become partially implanted to be rejected for lack of uterine stability.  Granted, this occurrence is rare, but if any man-made agent causes the elimination of an embryo from the womb, this can reasonably be considered an “abortifacient.”  And heath care that includes coverage for contraception has a higher cost.  I understand that you disagree with their stance, but Tyndale has a rational argument based in objective reality.

  • Yes, but isn’t the whole point of birth control to not let an embryo develop if one should happen to implant?

    Good god, the sheer time and energy that goes into the ongoing drive to control women’s bodies – PLEASE MAKE IT STOP SOMEHOW ALREADY AGH.

    *headache blooms*

  • I was thinking it’s part of a Muslim ploy to prevent more Christians from being born. How does it work? Being good at algebra makes you likely to be mocked as a nerd. Being mocked as a nerd makes you likely to associate with nerds. This makes exposure to D&D likely. D&D teaches people magic, if I remember my 1980’s studies right. There must be an abortion spell somewhere, right? (Probably in the Book of Erotic Fantasy. I’m thinking necromancy, wiz/sor 3rd or 4th?

  • Brad Jones

    That’s what Tyndale is saying

  • Carstonio

    And fourth, the mark grants permission to buy and sell. I guess in a school, this would mean Scout cookies and popcorn, and in a workplace, Pampered Chef or Longaberger. From my redaing, the mark was never about personal ID but about control of commerce.

  • Matri

    My mom used to think that RFID tags would be the Mark of the Beast …
    then my dad started working for a company that designs them.

    That sounds like an awesome dinner conversation just waiting to happen.

  • Matri

    From my reading, the mark was never about personal ID but about control of commerce.

    You mean like credit ratings?

  • Becca Stareyes

     But there are plenty of other drugs which can cause problems in pregnancy (either inducing a miscarriage or causing terminal birth defects) and for which eliminating would make health insurance cheaper.  They’re on standard plans (and no one objects to them) because they have important primary uses.  Chemotherapy drugs for cancer come to mind, but thanks to the wonders of drug ads, I hear a lot of ‘if you are pregnant or wanting to become pregnant, consult your doctor before taking X’. 

    Of course, hormonal contraception has other important primary uses: there are plenty of folks who are capable of conceiving but for which a pregnancy would either end in severe birth defects in the fetus (example: folks on those drugs above) or would severely impact their health, and they also are the standard treatment for a lot of gynecological disorders. 

    But, somehow employers seem to think that because hormonal contraception is also prescribed to healthy people to avoid pregnancy, that it’s different from all the other drugs that have effects on the uterus and ovaries and/or a fertilized egg/embryo/fetus. 

  • Ross Thompson

    There must be an abortion spell somewhere, right? (Probably in the Book of Erotic Fantasy. I’m thinking necromancy, wiz/sor 3rd or 4th?)

    I’m pretty sure it would be a druid spell. Or maybe bard; I can see bards needing that once in a while.

  • rm

     666 is not such a bad credit rating.

  • Münchner Kindl

    She may cling to a theology that literally demonizes the entire
    school district, but since it’s also a flaccid, impotent theology that
    doesn’t require her to confront this supposedly Satanic evil in any
    meaningful way, she’s probably mostly harmless.

    Until the day she shoots up the school in her brave fight against the agents of the Antichrist?

  • Tricksterson

    Don’t give them ideas. 

  • Carstonio

     (Ding!) That fits well with Fred’s point about “a flaccid, impotent theology that doesn’t require her to confront this supposedly Satanic evil in any meaningful way.” Such as fighting the rating agencies and lenders who control many aspects of people’s lives. Those companies would be excellent candidates for the theology’s Beast, with the credit rating being the mark. But not surprisingly, these folks are more interested in protecting their souls. It’s like they haven’t even read Revelation 13 and are assuming that the mark is like the Omega symbol in the last season of Smallville.

  • AnonaMiss

    I think we can’t use harm as a gauge of what religious practices to allow or not, because the religious groups would then be able to counter-claim with harm beliefs. Birth control is an abortifacient, and taking an abortifacient is a danger to your immortal soul, potentially damning you to hell for all eternity, which is a far greater harm than merely receiving slightly lower wages. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it wage theft or withholding wages by fraud, unless it was intimated that birth control would be covered, e.g. if the health plan offered was called ‘comprehensive’. Instead it would be an exemption from the federal requirement to either provide comprehensive birth control or pay a fine – i.e., an exemption from federal minimum wage laws, similar to what wait staff/tipped employees have. Not that that’s good, just that it isn’t deceit.

    I wonder – what would organizations claiming religious exemptions from birth control coverage choose if they were given a choice between providing insurance that covers birth control, or providing otherwise-comprehensive insurance that didn’t cover birth control and paying women an extra ~$50/mo in cash? On the grounds that providing comprehensive insurance to men but not to women is sex discrimination in pay, and the extra cash to women would make up the deficit. Since contraception coverage doesn’t increase the cost of insurance, I suspect their objections would melt away…


    I’m a little surprised that no one has brought up that we allow Catholics to give alcohol to minors on religious grounds, and that they want to give alcohol to minors because they believe that it ceases being alcohol once blessed – another demonstrably untrue claim.
    I think my brain isn’t working properly this morning because it’s just sort of spinning uselessly on this comparison, recognizing it’s relevant but not gaining any traction. 

    Does relaxing a mandate to do something on religious grounds differ from relaxing a mandate to not do something on religious grounds? 

    If you believe the Catholic mass exemption for drinking age is right, would it still be right if the participants were explicitly supposed to get drunk, a la the Tohono O’odham ceremony to welcome the rain? 

  • Jeff Weskamp

    I actually own a copy of the Book Of Erotic Fantasy.  I bought it back in 2006.  It’s a bizarre book, giving D&D rules for sex, pregnancy, BDSM, etc.  I looked through it and it doesn’t have a spell that aborts pregnancies.  There are spells for changing people’s genders, giving them long-distance orgasms, and rendering males impotent.  And it gives you the gestation periods of elves, orcs, dwarves, etc.

    There *is* a necromancy spell for 3rd ed. D&D called “Strike Barren” that renders a living creature permanently infertile, though.   It’s in a book called Necromancy: Beyond the Grave and it is indeed a 3rd level Necromancy spell.

  •  My own position here is that secular laws are justified, and exemptions to secular laws are justified, on secular grounds. It’s fine if, as a matter of historical practice, the exemptions that actually come up to be evaluated are disproportionately being proposed by religious groups, as long as the legal evaluation itself is conducted on secular grounds.

    For example, I have no problem with saying it’s OK to serve alcohol to
    minors with their parents’ approval, even if the minors subsequently become intoxicated. And, sure, that should apply to Catholic religious
    services as well, if Catholics want it to.

    But transubstantiation should have absolutely nothing to do with the legal decision, because there are no secular grounds for believing in transubstantiation, and the law ought to concern itself with secular grounds.

    That’s the only way I can think of for a single legal authority to act
    with justice towards several different religious traditions at once.

  • Wednesday

    (1) Preventing implantation is, scientifically speaking, not an abortion. Pregnancy begins with implantation, not conception (because boatloads of fertilized eggs don’t implant). So no, they are still making up their own facts when they say HBC is an abortificant. 

    (2) LOTS of things could affect chances of implantation, including timing of sex relative to ovulation — back-of-the-envelope computations show that fertility awareness methods of contraception very likely result in many more dead blastocysts than using HBC. Becca Stareyes pointed out that plenty of other drugs pose risks to embryos and actually _are_ known to interrupt pregnancies, but Tyndale doesn’t seem too concerned with them. (Heck, there’s an anti-acne drug which is a popular DIY medical abortion drug in countries where legal abortions are hard to get.)

     (3) Probably half of all embryos fail to implant. As has been repeatedly noted by Fred here on this blog, the anti-legal-abortion crowd doesn’t actually care about finding out what actually reduces the chances of implantation and saving those embryos that fail to implant. If Tyndale objects to HBC because maybe possibly it might hypothetically prevent an embryo from implanting, but aren’t concerned about other things, then I think we can safely conclude they don’t actually give a crap about saving embryos,  just about controlling women’s sexuality.

  • Carstonio


    Birth control is an abortifacient, and taking an abortifacient is a danger to your immortal soul, potentially damning you to hell for all eternity, which is a far greater harm than merely receiving slightly lower wages.

    But these folks are not claiming that they’re being forced to use birth control. They’re insisting that participating in any scheme that enables others to obtain birth control goes against their religious consciences. The last term is vague, perhaps deliberately so, but it could mean that they believe their souls to be in danger just from the participation. It’s possible that they are simply out to save the souls of others, but they sound as if they’re concerned chiefly about themselves, even if it’s accumulating saved souls like afterlife green stamps.

  • Carstonio

    Yes. Not every religion teaches that immortal souls exist, and even among the ones that do, only some of these teach the existence of eternal damnation. It’s a sectarian argument and thus invalid for making secular law.

  • True, though I actually consider that irrelevant. Even if every religion taught the eternal damnation of immortal souls, it would still not be admissible grounds for justifying a law without secular grounds for such belief.