The religious liberty right to believe that algebra is an abortifacient

The religious liberty right to believe that algebra is an abortifacient November 25, 2012

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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